A group of Burmese NGOs, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and church groups have called on the Myanmar army, also known as the Tatmadaw and three members of an alliance of ethnic armed groups currently engaged in hostilities with the military to respect civilians in conflict zones and adhere to international law and codes of conduct regarding the treatment of civilians during wartime.
The coalition of groups was responding to a tragic incident in northern Shan State late last month that saw five Kachin villagers killed. On August 31st shells landed in Kutkai Township’s Maw Heik village hitting homes where villagers were sheltering, of the five people killed in incident three, were children. Sumlut Htoi Ja, a 34-year-old mother died alongside her 14-year-old daughter Zahkung Nang Pan and her nine-year-old son Zahkung Hkun Lat. Lajin Lu San, an 18-year-old mother and her young baby Lasham Seng Hkawn were also killed.
Following the widely publicized incident a statement issued by the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), blamed the military’s shelling of the village for the civilian deaths. The armed groups have been involved in heavy fighting with the military in northern Shan State since August 15th. The ethnic armed groups have had multiple clashes with the military near Lashio, Kutkai, Nampaka and along the national highway in northern Shan state.
A statement released by the coalition of CSOs and NGOs called for an end to the fighting and called on all sides to protect civilians. The statement also called for humanitarian access to civilians in conflict zones. “The international community should push both the Burma Army and ethnic armed forces to respect international law,” the statement said.
Reached for comment, Mai Mai, an aid worker based in northern Shan State depicted a very difficult situation on the ground for civilians. “Even when there are no clashes, the army launches airstrikes. We therefore now have new IDPs [internally displaced persons]” she said.
“Many cars were destroyed by fires on the national highway road. Civilians have suffered many things. We are therefore pushing both the government and ethnic armed forces to respect international laws,” added Mai Mai, who is working with the Humanitarian Situation Team – Northern Shan State (HST-NSS).
Like many countries, Myanmar has already ratified the Geneva Convention, which covers conduct in international and civil wars. Experts say that domestic Burmese laws concerning the military do not, however, fall in line with international norms.
Reached for comment, Aung Htoo, the founder of the Legal Aid Network (LAN), a Myanmar focused legal rights NGO said that violations of international law must be documented. Aung Htoo, who is well known for his legal expertise in such matters, explained that CSOs should “systematically” document and record instances of civilian casualties in conflict zones and then forward the allegations to the United Nations for further investigation. LAN has been at the forefront of training Myanmar’s ethnic people in human rights and international law and Aung Htoo is well known for his ability to explain complex legal matters like international law to a Myanmar audience.
On September 1st the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), responded to the tragedy by releasing a statement indicating that the church group would report further violations of international law to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Reached for comment about the Mawhik case the head of the KBC told the Kachin News Group his organization would continue to be vigilant in monitoring the situation. “This is a war crime. We have warned that we will take action after making inquiries. All armed forces in Burma do not respect civilians. Firing heavy weapons into a village is really cruel. If this sort of case occurs again we will report it to the ICC with evidence,” explained Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson. The KBC Chairman is being sued by the Tatmadaw for allegedly defaming the military during a recent meeting he attended at the White House with US President Donald Trump where he criticized the Tatmadaw.
A recently formed Kachin political party, the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) released a statement on September 2nd that called on the parties responsible for the civilian deaths to take responsibility for what happened. Both the Myanmar army and the ethnic armed groups have denied responsibility for what happened.
Mai Mai from the HST-NSS explained that the pattern of denying responsibility is well known in Myanmar “Even though the police seize hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs, they [the contraband] are without owners. Now, these bullets are without owners. Even though we know who opened fire with heavy weapons, we are afraid to talk about it. Even though we know who set cars on fire, we are afraid to talk about it. I hope we will speak the truth one day,” said Mai Mai.
Senior officials from the MNDAA, TNLA, AA and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) met representatives from the government’s peace team the NRPC on August 31st at Kengtung. They discussed signing bilateral ceasefire agreements with the central government.