First they chopped off his arms
Mutilation and executions accompany Burmese claims of democracy and freedom. Kasper Stensgaard reports from Burma.
Less than a week before Burma’s election, rare photos of execution, mutilation and burning of civilians in Burma’s Kachin State emerge, while the Burmese government claims such atrocities are not taking place.
Investigation conducted in Burma’s predominantly Christian Kachin State in March 2012 portray inhumane and seemingly arbitrary attacks on villagers. Dozens of highly sensitive photos obtained through credible sources entrenched in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group fighting against the government army, strongly indicate that the government is, in fact, brutalising its own people despite often dismissing these allegations as foreign attempts to destabilise the union of the Burmese people.
The photos were taken by the KIA after the government army, also referred to as the Tatmadaw, allegedly attacked the two villages of Nam Tsan Yang and Namwai in October and November 2011. Namwai village is located just a few kilometers inside the neighbouring Shan State, but has become a part of the hostilities in the Kachin State. According to survivors who now live in refugee camps in Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State, five villagers were killed in Nam Tsan Yang while the death toll in Namwai amounted to three. Four of the alleged murders can be seen in the photos.
The two villages are approximately 45 kilometers from each other and are located close to the Chinese border. The similar trails of destruction and terror found in the villages suggest that the Tatmadaw execute their atrocities using the same tactics everywhere, indicating the attacks may be military strategies more so than spontaneous actions of individual commanders and soldiers. It would seem unlikely that Burma’s highest ranking military officials are unaware of the onslaught in the conflict zones as most of them have drawn on personal combat experience in order to reach the peaks of the military hierarchy.
39-year old Nam Tsan Yang villager, Ding Si Roi Ji, now lives in a refugee camp in Myitkyina. She witnessed how the Tatmadaw surged through Nam Tsan Yang on the afternoon of October 25, 2011. As one of just several who had enough luck to flee the scene, Ding Si Roi Ji explained how a grotesque event played before her eyes before she found herself panicking through thick jungle to save both her life and that of her daughter’s.
“We all knew and liked Mr. Jarp Hkan Naw. He was from the Lisu tribe. I’m not sure exactly how old he was, but he was somewhere in his sixties. He lived in the village all his life,” Roi Ji continued, “He was mending a fence in the village when suddenly the Tatmadaw attacked from all directions. He did not manage to escape and was seized by the soldiers”.
After Jarp Hkan Naw found himself in the hands of the soldiers, he was soon suspected of being more than just a mere villager, Roi Ji explained. “He was instantly accused of being a KIA collaborator. They screamed, ‘Those hands of yours have been used to produce bombs that have killed our soldiers.’”
Jarp Hkan Naw frantically claimed his innocence and insisted that he was just a simple peasant like any other villager. This did not convince the soldiers, Roi Ji said. “The soldiers beat him up ferociously and finally grabbed machetes and first chopped off the arms and then the legs of the still conscious man. Soon he was panicking on the ground with blood gushing out of his body. The soldiers showed him no mercy. Finally the soldiers emptied a big canister of petrol on him – and set him ablaze.”
The Tatmadaw left the smouldering body on the ground and the photos depict how the KIA found it the next day. His former neighbours, who knew him and his daily routines very well, said that it was almost laughable that the Tatmadaw of all people suspected him of being affiliated with the KIA and that he thus had become an innocent victim of a hideous and completely arbitrary crime.
Another photo from the same village shows the remains of an unidentified villager who was decapitated and set on fire so intensely that only the skeleton remained. A large bone is visible behind some burnt rags while the skull is seen on the ground a few meters from the corpse. Another photo of the same victim shows the scorched site of the immolation just left of the body. It has not been possible to confirm the identity of the victim.
In what appears to be an attempt to create long-lasting destruction, the village was subsequently razed and pillaged as can be seen in the photos. Tools, vehicles, vegetables and rice were rendered to ashes while many cows, pigs and chickens were meticulously put down. Such devastation begs the question if the mission was a inherently intended to ensure that returning survivors would face as difficult a time as possible if trying to resettle in the village.
After years of informal cessation of hostilities, fighting between government troops and the KIA reignited in June 2011. So far it has displaced at least 75,000 ethnic Kachin, many of whom have fled to areas near the Chinese border that the KIA dominate through several strongholds. At the time of writing, the fighting and attacks on villages are still being reported.
International economic sanctions have been imposed on Burma for years as a result of numerous human rights violations. However, the common people of Burma have not felt a big blow as they have been terribly poor for as long as anyone can remember. The real effect has been felt by the military leaders and their business cronies, which may explain the government’s current efforts to show the world that it is no longer the black sheep of Asia. Most notably, by allowing for what it calls a free and unrigged election on April 1 and by releasing hundreds of political prisoners in January 2012. It is nevertheless this particular government that is responsible for the onslaught that still haunts the ethnic minority areas.
Photos from the village of Namwai are even more conclusive of how the Tatmadaw is violating a plethora of human rights. The village was attacked on November 19, 2011, and the next day the KIA showed up and found traumatised survivors searching for their possessions in the still burning and smoking remains of their homes.
One picture shows a pool of dried blood that, according to the KIA, was the result of a villager found executed and covered with a blanket.
The next day the KIA found a male villager of about 60 or 70 years whose identity was not established. The man had seemingly been executed at point blank range with a gunshot to the left eye. Further study of the picture reveals the man had several cuts and blood all over his body, indicating physical abuse prior to his execution.
It has been notoriously difficult for international human rights and aid organisations to operate on Burmese soil, and since December 2011 the Burmese government has made it almost impossible for UN aid agencies to access the conflict zones in the Kachin State. In this period only twice have the agencies been allowed access.
In 2008, when cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc in Burma’s southern delta region, more than 140,000 people died while millions of people lost their homes. At the time the Burmese government appeared apathetic and made no known effort to help the affected people. In fact, for weeks the government refused to accept any help from foreign countries or international organisations, despite the flotilla of cargo ships, carrying aid resources, which was moored just off the coast. The result was thousands of additional losses of life.
So far the government has not done anything to help displaced villagers in the Kachin State, although immediate and unrestricted access of international organisations to the conflict areas could make a big difference.
In a February 2012 press conference in Bangkok, Win Mra, chairman of Burma’s National Human Rights Commission (BNHRC) told reporters that he deemed investigations into the conflict zones would not be appropriate at the present point in time. The establishment of peace was of greatest importance, he said, and explained that as a consequence, alleged violations of human rights would “recede into the background”. Burma’s human rights took another knock last month when the Burmese parliament, Hluttaw, announced that Burma’s current president Thein Sein, who founded BNHRC, had had no right to do so and as a result, the commission was dissolved entirely.
According to several of the survivors from the two villages, the purges are part of an unofficial strategy of the government, one that aims to annihilate ethnic minorities, such as the six ethnicities of the Kachin people, and leave behind only ethnically “clean” Burmese.
Burma’s former president, General Than Shwe, retired in March 2011 but is widely believed to still to be pulling the strings from behind the scenes. In the biography “Than Shwe – Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant” the author, Benedict Rogers, considered an expert on Burma, states the Burmese regime’s hatred towards the ethnic minorities is influenced by a fascist ideology. This ideology is embodied in the governing principle of “Amyo, Batha, Thathana,” which translates as “One race, One language, One religion,” the race and language being Burmese and the religion Buddhism. Unfortunately for the Kachin people, they are not of Burmese ethnicity, few speak Burmese and even less are Buddhists. Despite the testimonies of the villagers and the regime supposedly finding inspiration in an ideology replete with fascist principles, it is not possible to prove a direct link between the executions and a hidden agenda of specifically targeting ethnic minorities.
In March 2011 General Than Shwe retired as Burma’s president, supposedly due to ailing health, after which Thein Sein took over the reins. In his inauguration speech Thein Sein, who as such is responsible for the atrocities in the two villages described in this article, emphasized the importance of ending Burma’s several ethnic armed conflicts, and pronounced how the ethnic minorities had experienced “the hell of untold miseries”. So far there is no sign that Thein Sein’s sympathies have reached the battlegrounds or that life there has not gotten any sweeter.
Throughout the years under the rule of Than Shwe several international diplomats confronted him with scores of reports about violations of human rights in Burma. In one case, when questioned by a former Western ambassador in 1995, Benedict Rogers notes Than Shwe reacted rather surprised and said: “We are Buddhists and we wouldn’t hurt a fly.” There is – in an extremely ironic way – perhaps something to this claim. For many Burmese Buddhists killing a fly or any other animal is considered a sin. Nowhere in Burma’s areas dominated by Buddhism can you find flypaper on the tables, whereas this is commonplace in establishments in the Christian Kachin State. Perhaps the Christian ethnic minorities of the Kachin State, if given the choice, would be willing to risk a fly or two in their bowl of rice if it meant less terror and bloodshed in the villages where they have lived for generations. Ironically, maybe the generals would not hurt a fly, but it has been thoroughly documented that they disregard the lives of many ethnic minorities. This could be the reason why many Burmese say that the generals have Buddhist as well as military uniforms that can be expediently worn and taken off at their convenience.