- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 29, 2011

BANGKOK — Deep in jungles far from the international spotlight, Myanmar’s army continues to torture and kill civilians in campaigns to stamp out some of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.

Human rights groups say these ongoing atrocities against ethnic minorities serve as a reminder on the eve of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the reforms recently enacted by the military-backed government to worldwide applause are not benefiting everyone.

Neither the landmark visit by Mrs. Clinton nor cease-fire talks are expected to end the plight of Myanmar’s numerous ethnic minorities or lead to the greater autonomy for which some have been fighting since independence from Great Britain in 1949.

Aid groups have reported atrocities that occurred as recently as last month — a village leader was killed, allegedly by soldiers, for helping a rebel group, his eyes gouged out; his 9-year-old son was buried beside him in a shallow grave, his tongue cut out.

With minorities making up some 40 percent of Myanmar’s 56 million people and settled in some of its most resource-rich border regions, resolution of these brutal conflicts is regarded by all sides as crucial.

The fighting has uprooted more than 1 million people, now refugees within their country or in neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh.

“This is the most intractable problem facing the state since independence. I would argue it is more important than ‘democracy’ as an issue,” says David Steinberg, a Myanmar scholar at Georgetown University.

“Most minority groups want some form of federalism, but federalism is anathema to the military, as they view it as the first step toward secession,” he said.

While hopes are perhaps higher now than in decades, reports and interviews in recent days from inside the embattled areas are uniformly bleak.

“Even though there is activity [by the government], there has been no change in the ethnic areas. We continue to have widespread human-rights violations and attacks on our villages,” said Nan Dah Kler of the Karen Women Organization.

The spokesman for the Thailand border-based ethnic group urged that Mrs. Clinton “keep these facts in the forefront of her mind” when she talks to the government.

During her three-day visit, which begins Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton is certain to bring up the issue when she meets with President Thein Sein.

But she probably will focus on pressing for greater democratic reforms, freeing political prisoners and giving opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi more maneuvering room in the political arena.

A sign that talks on the ethnic conflicts could at least be more forthright than earlier exchanges is an unprecedented admission that the military may be committing human-rights abuses, something blankly denied in the past.

“As you know, there are no clean hands in conducting all sorts of war,” said Ko Ko Hlaing, an adviser to the president. “There may be some sort of crimes committed by government troops similar to other armed forces of the rest of the world, including NATO troops in Afghanistan accused of killing innocent civilians.”

In an email to the Associated Press, he said such crimes were, however, not systematic and that violators face punishment under the law. The adviser also accused armed ethnic groups of extra-judicial executions, attacks on civilian trains and other human-rights violations.

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