A landmark peace conference has begun in Myanmar bringing together many of the country’s armed ethnic groups in hopes of ending the world’s longest running civil war.
The country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi opened the conference by emphasising the need for unity and saying that the suffering of the ethnic people can no longer be ignored.
It marks the first time that so many of the country’s armed ethnic groups have been permitted to take part in peace talks since the start of the armed struggle in 1948. It also indicates the government’s determination to rectify the mistakes of the previous government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which restricted participation, fuelling distrust in the government and resulted in a violent shift in the conflict.
“After the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was signed under President Thein Sein’s semi-civil Government between Burma Army and eight ethnic armed groups (EAOs) in October 2015, the conflict has escalated in Northern Shan State and Kachin State where the non-signatory EAOs are based,” said Han Gyi, coordinator of the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma (ND-Burma).
“Before the ceasefire, fighting was generally between Burma Army and EAOs, after the ceasefire the conflict changed to be not just between the Burma Army and the EAOs but also signatory EAOs and non-Signatory EAOs like the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Shan State Army (SSA). So the pattern of conflict has escalated more and more.”
While the government hopes the five-day meeting will pave the way to long-term peace observers have expressed doubts over whether that is possible under the current constitution which was drafted by a previous military government. It provides the civilian government with only partial executive authority and forces it to share power with the military, which also retains a presence in parliament and control of important ministries.
This power sharing agreement has given the military the ability to act without civilian oversight and many of their actions, particularly with regard to human rights abuses, are fuelling the conflict rather than helping to resolve it. A report from ND-Burma recorded 98 human rights violations in the first six months of 2016 compared to 84 during all of 2015.
Systematic human rights abuses, indications that military authorised torture
The Ta’ang Women’s Organisation (TWO) has also documented a number of human rights abuses in ethnic Ta’ang areas of northern Shan State and has accused the army of committing war crimes on a widespread and systematic basis. This year the group said there were 36 cases of torture in the first three months and witnesses described torture methods that include stabbing with knives, burning, and slicing skin off villagers’ arms.
They tracked the similarity in torture methods used by local and central-based battalions and found that evidence indicates the practice has been authorised by the military and is potentially part of standard training for army personnel.
The problem, according to Han Gyi is that the military cannot be held to account for their actions. “While the military still has a strong position, most of the human rights violations will never be formally investigated and those responsible with enjoy complete impunity,” he said. “While impunity remains, a widespread a lack of respect for the rule of law will pervade, and a culture of human rights will remain elusive,”
“Constitutional impunity needs to be abolished, laws granting impunity need to be abolished, cases of human rights violations done by the military need to be heard at civilian courts with the cooperation with the military, and Myanmar National Human Rights Commission needs to be an independent and effective body in line with Paris Principles.
“Furthermore, given the escalation of torture and extrajudicial killings in the past six months ND-Burma is urging the government to ratify the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and its Optional Protocol, a commitment made under the Thein Sein regime.”
Myanmar is a UN member and is expected to adhere to international law which strictly prohibits torture under Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If the country ratified the CAT it would show a commitment to the prevention of torture as well as require the state to provide all victims with effective compensation and appropriate medical care and rehabilitation. The Optional Protocol would mean that the measures taken by the state would be reviewed by an independent body.
The military has also been criticised for its increased number of offences against the ethnic armed groups in the lead up to the conference. A number of parties in Kachin State issued a statement demanding they are halted and saying they are harming the integrity of the peace conference.
Meanwhile, two days before the peace talk began the Shan Herald News Agency reported that an offensive against the Shan State Army (SSA) in northern Shan State’s Lashio District had been launched. A spokesperson of the SSA said: “This is the time for building peace; I don’t understand why they are attacking us.”
by Steve Shaw