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U.N. Special Rapporteur to Visit Burma

on February 3, 2012

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, is visiting Burma this week to assess the country’s recent changes and to determine if the changes are leading to a realization of the citizens’ human rights.

A spokesperson from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that Quintana hopes to discuss the conflict in Kachin State with Burmese officials. PHR has been urging the international community to take stronger action regarding the conflict in Kachin State, and we welcome Quintana’s decision to address the situation. PHR and other human rights organizations have documented ongoing severe human rights violations by the Burma army in this area yet the government is blocking much-needed aid to internally displaced people (IPDs). Though there have been many positive changes in the country, the government’s blatant disregard for human rights in Kachin State should be a reminder that true reform is still needed.

PHR visited Kachin State in September 2011 and reported that the Burma Army used civilians for porters and minesweepers and fired into a civilian village. The report, Under Siege in Kachin State, Burma, also documented child malnutrition in one IDP camp in Kachin that was at a “severe” level according to the World Health Organization’s scale.

Unfortunately, the situation has only worsened since PHR’s visit. Fighting that broke out in June between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence army (KIA) continues. In Shan and Kachin States, an estimated 70,000 civilians are living in camps, shelters, or with family – an increase from 30,000 in October. Tens of thousands more have crossed the border into Yunnan Province, China. Overcrowded camps and poor sanitation have led to diarrhea and other diseases, and local aid workers have expressed concern that diseases will spread.

“No proper international assistance has been delivered since the outbreak of the conflict. IDPs have to take shelter in temporary shelters while hundreds of shelters still need to be built,” said La Rip, the head of the Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees, told PHR in January.

The IDPs’ needs are not being met. The UN is delivering aid to about 30,000 IDPs who have fled to areas controlled by the Burma army, but it has only sent one shipment of blankets to the 40,000 IDPs living in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The Burmese government granted permission for only one aid convoy to travel to KIO areas last December, and has blocked all other UN attempts at reaching those IDPs. In December the UN said that $6.4 million was needed to provide assistance to all IDPs for six months. But none of that aid will reach a majority of the IDPs if the government continues to block access or if this funding is not given directly to community groups that have greater access to populations in need.

The aid is urgently needed given the Burma Army’s continued attacks on civilians. A KIO official told PHR last month that, “The incidences of the Burmese Army's atrocities are everywhere: killing, torture, forced labour (portering and asking the civilians to fence the military posts), and rape are the most cases of the atrocities.”

The Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand told PHR on Thursday that more than 60 women have been raped by the Burma Army since the conflict began. Multiple reports have emerged of the Burma army destroying churches, torturing civilians and targeting civilian villages and IDP sites.

The immediate future looks bleak for IDPs. Peace talks, which have been sporadic since late last year, have yielded nothing, and two separate calls by Burma’s president Thein Sein for the Burma Army to stop its offensive in Kachin State have been ignored. A Burmese government negotiator recently said that it could take up to three years of talks before a lasting truce is reached.

The Burmese government must control its army and force it to stop attacking civilians in Kachin State. It must also allow international aid groups to reach all IDPs in Kachin State, not just the ones in areas controlled by the army. PHR hopes that Special Rapporteur Quintana is forceful with these issues.

The changes that are happening in Burma cannot be allowed to obscure atrocities that are ongoing and easily preventable. The Burmese government, the international community, and Special Rapporteur Quintana must understand that the government of Burma is accountable for these ongoing atrocities, and that true changes in the country must include government accountability for past and current abuses.

Places: Burma