Six snapshots of six years of war in Kachin
Early in the morning of September 13, 2012, soldiers from the Myanmar Army’s 389th Light Infantry Battalion arrived in Sut Ngai Yang, a small village about two kilometres north of the Hpakant town centre. They spent the next few hours drinking liquor in the homes they commandeered from the villagers. At around 4pm, as they were preparing to file out of Sut Ngai Yang, a unit of the Kachin Independence Army remotely detonated a bomb, injuring at least two of the soldiers from the 389th. In the ensuing mayhem, the government troops began firing indiscriminately into the village.
Returning home from school that afternoon, Ja Seng Ing took cover behind a house at the bottom of the hill leading into Sut Ngai Yang once the soldiers began shooting, along with several of her classmates and a teacher carrying her infant child. After an hour, soldiers called out to the group to reveal themselves, threatening to burn the entire village down. Ja Seng Ing stood and was immediately shot in the hip.
“They were still firing when we were carrying Ja Seng Ing to the hill,” Daw Nang San, the teacher, later said. “They shot at everyone they saw.”
Bleeding out rapidly, Ja Seng Ing was taken to the local deacon’s home for treatment. It was another two hours before soldiers permitted her to be taken to the hospital in Hpakant, where she was pronounced dead at 9pm. She was 14 years old.
This version of events is corroborated by 16 witnesses. Absent any other legal recourse, the deceased’s grief-stricken father Brang Shawng wrote to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission the next month to urge an investigation and a court-martial of the soldier that shot his daughter.
Instead, the following March, the military lodged a complaint against him for filing “false charges” with the intent of injuring the reputation of the military. The major who initiated the case cited the army’s own internal investigation, which concluded that Ja Seng Ing had been killed by shrapnel from the KIA bomb.
Yesterday I went to the launch of a report on the dire conditions in displacement camps in Kachin State, based on group interviews conducted at the end of 2015. The war in Myanmar’s north, today entering its sixth year, has to date displaced more than 130,000 people; 77 percent of the current displacement camp population are women. Nearly all of those that spoke to the researcher said they had either been the victims of or directly witnessed sexual assault, torture, the loss of loved ones and forced labour. Drug abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking are rampant. One woman reported that members of her camp’s management committee routinely blamed women for falling prey to sexual violence: “women did not behave well, and did not wear suitable clothes in front of men.”
Last year, in the weeks prior to the National League for Democracy government’s first peace conference in Nay Pyi Taw, the military launched a fresh offensive in Kachin State in the area around the Kachin Independence Organisation’s headquarters at Laiza. Thousands already confined to displacement camps took flight during the ensuing months. At the beginning of this year, my colleague Steve Tickner spoke to women who had been forced to flee; one told him it was the fourth time she had been displaced since 2011.
Clashes were reported again at the beginning of this week at gold mines west of Tanai, in what appears to be a campaign to choke off a KIO funding source. The military had conducted a letterdrop warning the 5,000 people in the vicinity to leave the area by June 15 — after that date, they will presumably be treated as enemy combatants if they remain.
At yesterday’s event, a Kachin civil society worker regularly based in the camps said something that should be obvious to anyone following the conflict but isn’t said enough: that it was “no coincidence” that, once again, military incursions increased in severity and frequency at the same time as the capital prepared for national peace talks.
The Kachin people and public figures in the KIO often express dismay at the lack of international recognition and awareness of their conflict. And in the arcane logic that governs what captivates international attention, the answers are easy: this is a war which, for all its misery, lacks the sheer barbarity and scale of Syria or the geopolitical peril of Crimea, away from public view and ready access.
But I am surprised at how little coverage it’s had in local media so far today, given that reflections on the conflict have been a reliable fixture of previous anniversaries, and given that the last 12 months has seen what are certainly the most severe clashes since 2013.
Since the NLD took office, it seems to me that some media outlets have taken a more ambiguous view of the origins and longevity of the conflict than when the fighting could be easily blamed on the military proxy party that helmed the last government. As the NLD have continued wholesale with the peace process it inherited, the scorn directed at the previous government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement has dimmed substantially, and perhaps in turn the KIO is now viewed in some quarters as intransigent when once they were principled for not signing the accord.
The kind of judicial harassment directed against Brang Shawng has a long pedigree in Myanmar. Yet the judicial apparatus is never more terrifying and never more absurd than when it’s wielded by the military.
Over two years, Brang Shawng was brought before the court in Hpakant more than 40 times as prosecution witnesses routinely failed to appear. It was admitted in court that the military investigation committee responsible for determining the circumstances of his daughter’s death never visited Sut Ngai Yang. The doctor who treated Ja Seng Ing was transferred to a remote posting and struck off the witness list by the presiding judge. Brang Shawng was convicted in February 2015, and ordered to either pay a $50 fine or submit to a six-month prison sentence.
The month prior to his conviction, the badly beaten bodies of two Kachin schoolteachers, aged 20 and 21, were discovered in their dormitory at a Baptist school in northern Shan State. The pair had been raped and murdered a couple of nights after a light infantry regiment set up camp in their village; an army-issue belt and footprints from an army boot were found at the crime scene. DNA tests were suppressed, and a military statement threatened to take legal action against anyone accusing the regiment’s soldiers of the crime. A prominent civil society member remains on an immigration blacklist barring their return to Myanmar after making such an accusation at a public rally in Yangon.
Three months before Ja Seng Ing’s death, the military arrested Brang Yung and Laphai Gam, two men displaced by the Kachin conflict and living in a camp on the outskirts of Myitkyina. They were beaten from head to toe with iron rods, sexually tortured and made to sign confessions implicating them as agents of the KIA. Despite being arrested and charged jointly, Brang Yung was released at the end of 2015, while Laphai Gam remains in prison to this day. “The Government in its response does not dispute that the evidential basis of the case against Mr. Gam was built on information extracted from him, which he surrendered as a result of torture,” a member of his international legal team said.
In February, thousands of people joined peace protests across several cities to demand an end to conflict, the resumption of humanitarian aid to displaced people in KIO-controlled areas, and a unilateral ceasefire from the military.
The following month, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi attended the Institut Francais compound on Pyay Road, in her capacity as patron of the Yangon Photo Festival. One of the competition finalists had travelled to Kachin State to document the women and children living in a displacement camp. The audio of an interview with one of the camp’s occupants was played to the audience over a montage of the photo series.
“The Bamar treat us worse than animals, and Aung San Suu Kyi and the military have exactly the same policy toward us,” she said. After a moment’s stunned silence, a section of the audience broke out into applause.
Perhaps the real reason why this anniversary has been unheralded: the widespread expectation, orphaned since by all who suggested it, that the conflict would end soon after the NLD took office.
Back in January, the KIO’s General Gun Maw was asked the following:
“In the weeks before the November 2015 general election Aung San Suu Kyi spent four days in Kachin State, where she was warmly welcomed and supported by many people. At that time she spoke often of how a vote for NLD would translate into an improvement in their lives. How do you think the Kachin people feel at present about the NLD-led government and Daw Suu?”
His response: “Disappointed.”
Ja Bawk Lu had known Ja Seng Ing since they were five years old and attended school with her. They were walking home together on the day of the attack in Sut Ngai Yang, and Ja Bawk Lu was beside Ja Seng Ing as she bled to death. This is her testimony:
“My friend said that she wanted to become a famous and successful singer. We all believed that she would become one. But her dream will never come true anymore. … To console myself, I always think that she will come back to life someday. I felt so sad that I wanted to leave this world. I remembered and long for those old days when we went to school together, we played together and we dressed ourselves together.
We dreamed about studying abroad after we passed grade 10. We were always together, going about and gossiping around. Sometimes, we quarrelled but as friends. We were the only close friends in this world. She was pretty and there was no fault in her gestures. She was good at her studies. I feel pity and wasted for her. We understood each other very well. Sometimes, I dream of her and miss her a lot.
I wish my friend was here. I hate war. We were not enemy soldiers but schoolgirls.”