Myanmar and its army are continuing a “systematic repression” of citizens, namely in ethnic areas with ongoing conflicts, despite the government’s promise of reform and its ceasefire agreements with some ethnic armed groups, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.
The military also continues to violate international humanitarian law through the use of anti-personnel landmines and child soldiers, and through beatings and pillaging property, the rights group said in its annual report.
“The Burmese military continues to be responsible for abuses against civilians in conflict areas, including forced labour, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, the use of ‘human shields,’ and indiscriminate attacks on civilians,” the report said.
Fighting in Karen State in eastern Myanmar following the November 2010 elections displaced some 20,000 people, the report said, while ongoing clashes in Kachin State in northern Myanmar have pushed tens of thousands of ethnic Kachins across the border to China.
According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, almost half a million people in eastern Myanmar are internally displaced due to armed conflict. There are hundreds of thousands more in refugees in camps in Thailand and Bangladesh.
“Sexual violence against women and girls (by the military) remains a serious problem and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice,” the report also said.
“Local women’s rights groups (in Kachin state) reported high levels of sexual violence with more than 35 women and girls raped in the first two months of the fighting alone,” it added.
The report said ethnic armed groups also committed serious rights abuses, including recruiting child solders, carrying out extrajudicial executions and using antipersonnel landmines around civilians.
This January, after the report was written, Myanmar’s government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Karen ethnic armed group, raising hopes one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies may be nearing its end.
Talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation have yet to bear fruit. Fighting has continued, despite Myanmar’s President Thein Sein’s public call for the army to stop its offensive against the Kachin rebels.
Myanmar’s new nominally civilian government, which came to power in March 2011 after half a century of iron-fisted military rule, is still filled with former and current military officers, HRW said.
And while more media freedom, changes to labour laws and amendments to political party registration rules “are encouraging on paper, it remains to be seen how they will be implemented and the level of social participation,” HRW said.
The government has impressed its critics in the West with such reforms, however, and the United States and European Union recently signalled their willingness to review sanctions against the Myanmar government.