Kachin Lives Matter!

The newly released investigative report “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied” by Laiza based Legal Aid Network (LAN) and Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), details sexual violence and other war crimes committed by the Burma Army in Kachin areas. The contents of the report are explosive to be sure, but they come as no great surprise to the Kachin public. Rather, it vindicates what most Kachins have known or suspected all along – that the perpetrators of the crimes are members of the Burmese army, and that the army-controlled courts have been using every trick in the book to delay or derail justice.

The focus of the collaborative report is the rape and murder on the night of January 19, 2015, of 2 young Kachin volunteer teachers, Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, at Kawng Hka village in northern Shan State. The senseless brutality of the crime sent shock waves, even beyond the Kachin world. The National League for Democracy, the country’s leading opposition party, and international rights groups and foreign governments were compelled to call for a “timely, transparent and credible investigation”.

The government did form an official investigation team, but the team, it turned out, did more to obstruct than facilitate the course of justice. Crime scene evidence, including crucial DNA evidence, disappeared or was withheld, judging by the conflicting statements the team gave – first, that they had been sent to a forensic lab, then backtracking and saying they might have been lost. Even before the release of any report by the investigative team, the army preemptively issued threats that legal action would be taken against anyone alleging troop involvement in the crime.

The army’s next move was to scapegoat the villagers. This, despite the fact that no villager in his right mind would venture out into the night, let alone commit such a heinous crime, with troops stationed within 100 yards of the crime scene. Besides, there is no way the villagers, all Baptist Christians, would ever do anything to harm the respected and beloved teachers, sent to educate their children by the denomination’s headquarters, the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC).

Ten months into the crime, the investigation remains in limbo, until the LAN/KWAT report came out, pointing the finger squarely at Maj. Aung Phyo Myint, commander of the 503 Light Infantry Regiment, as the prime suspect. The report carefully reconstructs the crime scene, the time-line and movements of the Major and his troops, based on evidence given by the villagers, including the couple at whose home Maj. Aung Phyo Myint and some of his men had been quartered the night of the crime.

The conclusion drawn rested on the unaccountability of the suspect’s whereabouts during the crime time line, his agitated behavior the morning after, and other extenuating factors. What is noteworthy is that the villagers bravely gave their testimonies despite being cautioned by the investigative team that doing so could endanger them in the form of reprisals by the army.

Another case highlighted in the report is the heartbreaking story of Ja Seng Ing, a 14 year old girl, shot and killed on Sept 13, 2013, reportedly by 389 Light Infantry Regiment soldiers stationed at Sut Ngai Yang village in Hpakant township.

Brang Shawng, Ja Seng Ing’s father, wrote to President Thein Sein as well as the Myanmar Human Rights Commission, appealing for an official investigation into his daughter’s case. Despite the fact that the case was backed by nearly a hundred pages of court documents reviewed by the Associated Press, and interviews with more than 20 witnesses by human rights advocates, it was Brang Shawng, not the army, that was put on trial.

He was charged with falsely accusing the army of killing his daughter. After appearing in court more than 55 times, he was found guilty, and given the option of serving a six-month prison term or paying a fine of 50,000 kyats ($50). He chose the fine but there is no doubt in his mind that his young daughter died at the hands of soldiers of the Army’s Light Infantry 389.

The report also points out the implication the Ja Seng Ing case might have on the Kawng Hka case, in that the KBC, which had been actively pursuing the case through its own independent investigative team, could face the same fate as Ja Seng Ing’s father, Brang Shawng.

The “forced disappearance” of Sumlut Roi Ja, a 28-year-old Kachin woman, is also featured in the report. She had been arrested by troops of the Army’s 321 Light Infantry Battalion while working with her husband and father-in-law at a maize field near Hkai Bang village in Momauk Township on Oct 28, 2011. She was last known to be detained at Mu Bum by the 321 LIB soldiers, but her whereabouts remain unknown to this day, much like that of Sombath Somphone, the Laotian activist and Magsaisai Awardee, who disappeared on December 15, 2012, after last being seen on CCTV getting into a police car.

For too long, Kachin rights have been trampled on, Kachin lives snuffed out, as if Kachin lives do not matter! Even at this moment of writing, battles are raging in the Kachin areas, displacing and putting thousands of civilians in harm’s way. This makes a mockery of the government’s mantra of change and its much touted peace process, not to mention its endorsement of the UN’s Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The President, on a recent campaign stump, reiterated that his government has changed enough, that no further changes should be expected. What this signals is that as long as the military maintains its stranglehold on political power, elections or not, Kachin lives will not matter to the powers that be, and bringing to justice those who cause them harm will likely be a lost cause.