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Myanmar Army Fires on Kachin, Rapes Women, Rights Group Says

Myanmar’s army has displaced 75,000 ethnic Kachins since last June in an area along the Chinese border, Human Rights Watch said today, in a conflict that may threaten efforts to convince Western nations to lift sanctions.

Myanmar soldiers fired at civilians, raped women and forced children as young as 14 to work as porters on the front lines, New York-based Human Rights Watch said today in an 83-page report. The offensive, which snapped a 17-year ceasefire, runs counter to President Thein Sein’s emphasis on ending ethnic conflicts since he took office a year ago, it said.

“There’s still a long way to go before the people of Burma, particularly those in conflict areas, benefit from recent promises of reform,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, referring to Myanmar by its former name. “The international community should not become complacent about the serious human rights violations still plaguing Burma.”

Fighting between government troops and Kachin rebels stands in contrast to Thein Sein’s progress toward peace deals with other ethnic armies as he aims to reconcile with political enemies. Senator John McCain said earlier this year that U.S. policy makers would rely on reports from independent groups like Human Rights Watch when assessing whether to lift sanctions that have been in place for more than two decades.

Human Rights Watch said it had written to both the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Organization with questions about specific allegations and hadn’t received any response. Calls to embassy officials in Bangkok and Ye Htut, director-general of Myanmar’s Information Ministry, went unanswered.

Candidate Suu Kyi

U.S. and European nations have pledged to review sanctions after April 1 by-elections involving dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her December visit to Myanmar cited improved ties with ethnic groups as a condition for easing sanctions against the nation of 64 million people that is among Asia’s poorest.

“In Kachin State, the violence is sticking out and is inconsistent with a trend toward dialog in confidence-building toward national reconciliation,” Derek Mitchell, a U.S. special envoy to Myanmar, told reporters in Yangon on March 15, according to a State Department transcript. The U.S. pledged $1.5 million to the United Nations’ refugee agency to assist those displaced by the fighting, he said.

Kachin, bordering China and India, is the northernmost of Myanmar’s 14 provinces and home to natural resources including precious gems, jade, copper and gold, Human Rights Watch said.

Kachin Christians

The Kachin, who are predominately Christian Baptists and Roman Catholic, took up arms against the military government in 1961, and the group’s Kachin Independence Army has grown to become Myanmar’s second-largest non-state ethnic armed group, according to Human Rights Watch. The Kachin Independence Organization, the army’s political wing, maintains a civilian administration that acts as a parallel state, the group said.

Clashes between government troops and Kachin rebels in the past year have occurred close to oil and gas pipelines being built by China National Petroleum Corp. and China Power Investment Corp.’s $3.6 billion hydropower project that Thein Sein suspended last year because of environmental concerns, Human Rights Watch said. In a statement last year, the government said Kachin rebels attacked Chinese staff working at hydropower projects in the northern state.

‘Most Serious Threat’

Myanmar has more than 30 armed ethnic minority groups that have resisted central government control since it gained independence from Britain in 1948. The Kachin fighting, which resumed around the time of the 2010 election when the government voided a 1994 ceasefire, “is the most serious threat to peace in Myanmar,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in November.

Human Rights Watch called for an independent international probe into the alleged abuses and for aid to reach displaced people in about 30 camps on the border with China. Abuses in the past year included soldiers shooting at women and children in villages, and the gang-rape of women taken from villages, it said.

The group also called on Kachin rebels to stop using child soldiers and anti-personnel mines.

“The Burmese army is committing unchecked abuses in Kachin State while the government blocks humanitarian aid to those most in need,” Pearson said. “Both the army and Kachin rebels need to act to prevent a bad situation for civilians from getting even worse.”

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