As the Myanmar Armyincreases its presence in ethnic areas, the outlook for civilians has become evermore grim. Renewed clashes on 3 June, 2017 between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in western Kachin State's Tanai Township have escalated in recent weeks, displacing thousands of local people and migrant workers. Dispatches from the ground reveal harrowing scenes of hundreds huddled in churches and monasteries, relying on the rapidly depleting capacity of local humanitarian organizations while facing pressures to relocate once more. For the local people, the situation is especially distressing—unlike migrant workers, they have no alternative home to return to.
The Myanmar Army's actions reveal its continued flagrant disregard of customary international humanitarian law, under which parties to a conflict are required to take all feasible steps to remove civilians from the vicinity of military objectives. While the Myanmar Army did drop leaflets over Tanai after the initial clashes—announcing impending clearance operations and giving local residents ten days to evacuate—these warnings did not take into account the ability of civilians to flee safely. According to Kachin News Group, over 4,000 civilians found transportation routes blocked by the Myanmar Army as they attempted to make their way to Tanai town before the 15 June deadline. The very text of the leaflets themselves—which stated that residents that did not evacuate would be treated as "insurgents"—reveal the army's negligence of their responsibility to protect civilians. Issuing warnings, per customary international law, does not give any party a free pass to presume or treat anyone who remains in an area as a legitimate military target. (Locals also claim that the Myanmar Army began attacks prior to the 15th, and that some residents didn't take the order seriously given missing dates and signatures on the leaflets.)
But perhaps what's even more concerning is how, despite advance notice of the impending flow of internally displaced people (IDPs), the Myanmar Government failed to launch an adequate response. While some basic food and transport assistance came from the township and state authorities and political parties including the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), the lack of coordinated preparation left those fleeing the conflict without a sustainable solution. The Myanmar Government's neglect to the ground plight of conflict-affected civilians was on stark display when State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that she "had not heard anything" about the military order to flee when asked about it during her visit to Canada. At the height of the IDP flow this month, Kachin State legislators complained about difficulties they faced in attempting to bring the situation to light at the Union Parliament.
The recent Tanai experience is hardly unique. Since the Myanmar Army offensive that collapsed its 17-year ceasefire with the KIA in 2011, fighting has been sporadic but frequent in KIA-controlled areas, particularly in northern Shan State and areas near the KIA headquarters of Laiza in Kachin State. Throughout northern Myanmar, fighting occurs almost daily between the Myanmar Army and members of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of four ethnic armed organizations that have not signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement. As of this month, 98,000 IDPs remain in Kachin and Shan States, with many facing food shortages as the government and army continue to politicize and obstruct humanitarian aid.
In the backdrop of conflict, allegations of serious human rights violations by the Myanmar Army in ethnic areas continue to surface regularly. In her speech to the Human Rights Council last week, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee noted the "recurring pattern" of impunity in the conduct of the Myanmar Army, pointing specifically to the lack of action taken on the killing of three IDPs by the Myanmar Army in late May. Meanwhile, the Myanmar Government continues to oppose the UN-mandated fact-finding mission that aims to investigate abuses committed by the Myanmar Army.
The title of the latest Amnesty International report could not be more apt. Based on interviews conducted between March and May 2017, "All the Civilians Suffer" details grave violations of customary international human rights and humanitarian law by the Myanmar Army in northern Myanmar. (While abuses by ethnic armed organizations were also discussed, it's important to note that these are less frequent, less systematic, and much less egregious.)
As the peace process continues to evade tangible progress, it is evermore urgent for the Myanmar Government and Army to prioritize the situation of those most vulnerable to conflict. This involves complying with international customary law, opening humanitarian access to those displaced by fighting, and allowing independent, international investigations into human rights abuses to take place. As a Nobel Peace Laureate and the head of an elected government, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has a moral imperative to rise above the military to protect the people who have nowhere to go.
One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, 'Burma' is used.