With free elections set for 2015, and world leaders including President Obama scheduled to touch down in Myanmar from this week, the government of the former pariah state was hoping to show the world how far democracy in the country has come. Instead, it will be defending charges of war crimes.
A new report alleges offensives launched by the Myanmar military in the country's east between 2005 and 2006 rise to the standard for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and suggests there is sufficient evidence to prosecute three high-ranking military figures — one of whom is a minister in the current government.
However, as many as 27 others could be found similarly accountable, Matt Bugher, report author and justice fellow at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law, told VICE News.
The report's launch comes as the spotlight is trained on Myanmar, with global leaders set to descend on the nation's capital of Naypyidaw for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on Wednesday, ahead of the G20 in Brisbane, Australia, on November 15.
The findings, entitled "War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in Eastern Myanmar,"were compiled by Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). They center on Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) offensives carried between 2005 and 2008, focusing specifically on one township in northern Kayin (Karen) State in December 2005 and January 2006. Conflict between the Tatmadaw and Karen ethnic armed groups began after the country gained independence from the UK in 1948. More than 120,000 refugees from the violence live in camps on the Thai-Burma border.
The war crimes alleged to have been committed in Thandaung township include murder, displacement of civilians, destroying of property, pillage, attacks on civilians, forced labor, rape, extrajudicial summary executions, and torture. They were apparently carried out by two units — Southern Regional Military Command and Light Infantry Division 66.
'One former soldier recalled being told to "do whatever you want" to civilians in black areas.'
Bugher said however that the purpose of the report was not to prescribe a course of action. "We are not calling for a prosecution or an arrest. We are calling for a clear discussion that involves stakeholders and people... who have suffered from military conduct."
Access issues meant the report was limited in geographical scope to one township, but its authors believe the findings represent "a small fraction" of the abuses perpetrated by Tadmadaw forces during the conflict.
The report details military strategy that was used to deny ethnic armed groups access to crucial supplies and support bases. It also outlines a geographical classification system employed by the military, under which territory was divided into three categories: black, brown, and white areas. "Black areas" were rebel held and any individuals present there were considered "the enemy" and therefore legitimate targets for attack.
"In black areas in particular, assaults involved mortar attacks on villages, the destruction of civilian property, 'shoot-on-sight' incidents, and the placing of land mines in locations that indicate a clear intent to cause civilian casualties, among other abusive forms of conduct," the report reads. "One former soldier recalled being told to 'do whatever you want' to civilians in black areas."
Forced labor and portering (a process of using prisoners to transport supplies for the military) was found to be common in brown zones. Bugher says that while there were three key figures named in the report, there are at least 25 lower ranking military figures that could have similar cases built against them.
"It would be foolish to say nothing's gotten better, because certainly in Karen State a reduction in human rights abuses is related to the reduction in armed conflict. It's not only conflict but also militarization that lead to human rights abuses. We're concerned about both. Sometimes a new commander comes in and things get cleaned up. For example there's been a remarkable reduction of forced labor in certain areas," he told VICE News.
However, Bugher said major concerns remain as armed conflicts play out on several fronts across the country and how these are dealt with "calls into question the sincerity of the reform movement."
'We do think there have been times when the United States government has been overly optimistic about the reform process.'
"We are deeply concerned about ongoing abuses in places like Kachin State and northern Shan State, and other parts where there's heavy militarization," he said.
The report's findings were presented on November 5 to Myanmar's deputy defense minister, Maj. Gen. Kyaw Nyunt. The conversation, Bugher says, was substantive, but there was "almost no agreement on the points raised," with Nyunt claiming that the report's findings were "one-sided and inaccurate." This sentiment was echoed by other senior officials whose views on the report were "fundamentally at odds [with the IHRC] about how to address those concerns," according to Bugher.
Advocacy group Fortify Rights has also seized the momentto release two major statements — one calling for an end to war crimes in conflicts in the northern states of Shan and Kachin, and the other which alleges official complicity in human trafficking of the stateless Rohingya minority.
Myanmar's human rights situation is set to be the elephant in the room at the ASEAN summit and there is much anticipation about what Obama will say on the issue.
Until recently, the steps taken in Myanmar's much-lauded reform process had meant the country was considered a foreign policy success story for the Obama administration.
Since Obama's first address there in November 2012 things have soured significantly, with backsliding in key areas such as press freedom, political prisoners, and human rights. There has been little progress in the nationwide ceasefire dialogue — as well as the enormous humanitarian crisis and severe denial of basic rights faced by the stateless Rohingya minority in Rakhine State.
A Twitter campaign called #justsaytheirname has sprung up, urging Obama to use the word "Rohingya" to acknowledge the existence of the people whom the Myanmar central government has denied official categorization. The campaign, started by United to End Genocide, contributes to growing pressure on the US president to make some reference to the domestic human rights situation when he speaks in Myanmar.
The country is slated to hold its first proper democratic elections in late 2015. Democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from contesting the presidency by a clause in the military-penned 2008 constitution, however, and it does not appear redress of this stipulation is on the horizon.
Suu Kyi held a press conference on November 5 following landmark talks between her, President Thein Sein, army chiefs, and other political leaders. She was then uncharacteristically vocal about the reform process.
"We do think there have been times when the United States government has been overly optimistic about the reform process," Reuters reported Suu Kyi as saying. "If they really study the situation in this country they would know that this reform process started stalling early last year," she added. "In fact, I would like to challenge those who talk so much about the reform process, what significant reform steps have been taken within the last 24 months?"
Follow Kayleigh Long on Twitter: @ayleighk