On November 3 the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, at Columbia University in New York, hosted a roundtable discussion called “Peace and Justice in Burma: Serious International Crimes Continue Despite Talk of ‘Change.’ ”
The discussion featured a presentation by Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, outlining the current situation in Burma, specifically in Kachin State.
Stothard began with a brief history of the conflict in Kachin State. In 1994, after decades of fighting, the Burmese government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization and its military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Despite the ceasefire, the Kachin people did not see their pleas for a representative government realized. In 2009 the Burmese government demanded that all opposition forces, the KIA included, incorporate themselves into the Border Guard Forces of the Burma Army. In light of the KIA’s refusal, the Burmese government launched an offensive against the KIA in Kachin State and Northern Shan State in June 2011. This war has caused large-scale displacement and a dramatic increase in human rights violations committed by the Burmese army in conjunction with its “four cuts strategy.”
According to an October 7 report by Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), these human rights violations include extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and rape (often gang rape), the use of child soldiers, enslavement and forced labor, and torture. The report says these violations are a direct policy of the Burmese government, both regularly and widely perpetrated impunity, which suggests they could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The conflict in Kachin State has created hundreds of thousands of refugees who are currently housed in six makeshift refugee camps, five of them on the China–Burma border. The Burmese government has blocked aid to these refugee camps, creating a humanitarian crisis that Stothard says is not being addressed by the international community because of a lack of political will.
KWAT is one of many organizations calling for a UN inquiry and a subsequent referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity. (Burmese organizations cannot request a referral to the ICC themselves, since Burma is not a signatory of the Rome Statute.)
Stothard told the audience that a referral to the Security Council was being blocked by Russia, a major arms dealer to the Burmese government, and China, which has multiple financial interests in Burma, including oil. So far there are 16 countries in favor of a UN inquiry into human rights violations in Burma, but Stothard says the initiative is also opposed by ASEAN, for fear of light being shed on human rights violations in most of its member states.