Myanmar: Old atrocity, new implications

Asia Time Online - Daily NewsMyanmar: Old atrocity, new implications By Bertil Lintner

YANGON – An atrocity committed 20 years ago by an armed opposition student group continues to haunt Myanmar, a bloody purge that could have far-reaching consequences for segments of the country’s pro-democracy movement, their foreign backers and the new quasi-civilian incarnation of the former military-run regime.

After hiding their pain and anguish for two decades, the survivors and family members of victims are now demanding that those responsible should be brought to justice. Some of the alleged murderers are living in Thailand, supported by international non-government organizations. But if justice is finally served, would it stop there and how long would the military allow for backward-looking investigations into its many past abuses?

Myanmar authorities have kept conspicuously silent on the issue, knowing full well that, as one Myanmar source put it, “if the students after 20 years haven’t forgotten and forgiven those who killed their own comrades, what about justice for all those thousands of people who were killed by the military’s bullets in 1988 or were tortured and had to spend most of their youth in dark prison cells?”

In early 1992, underground rebels from the anti-government All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) situated near the Chinese border in northern Kachin State accused almost a third of their comrades, or 107 out of a total of 350-400 in the “student army”, of being spies for the military government and its intelligence service.

According to the accounts of survivors, 36 were executed or died from torture they sustained during interrogations. The purge unleashed on other young people who had for several years fought for democracy in remote jungle areas was by all accounts extraordinarily brutal.

Htun Aung Kyaw, the chairman of the northern ABSDF and a well-known former student activist from Mandalay, was beheaded after being tortured with a hot iron, according to the accounts. He had earlier been forced to drink the blood still dripping from the head of a decapitated comrade. Aung Phone, another of those who had been accused and apprehended, had had tied to his foot a landmine, which was detonated and blew off his leg. The following day, he was beheaded.

A young woman activist was gang raped and had sharpened bamboo poles thrust into her vagina, ostensibly to look for poison that was going to be used to kill the leaders of the student army, before she was killed. She was also forced to perform fellatio on the body of her murdered boyfriend. The woman was a student at Rangoon Arts and Science University before joining the armed resistance after the September 1988 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in the then capital.

The witchhunt began in late 1991 when Chinese police in Yingjiang across the border from the ABSDF camp arrested 10 young Myanmar men armed with pistols and grenades. They were sent back to the camp and madness erupted among the young activists.

A videotape later released by the ABSDF shows the accused being brought to “justice”. In the video, a row of uniformed young men are seated at a wooden table, looking more like mediaeval inquisitors than the pro-democracy activists they then purported to be.

One of the accused after another admitted to their “crimes” in the videotape. Their statements were in some ways as meticulous in detail as the “confessions” extracted by torture in the Khmer Rouge‘s Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia. At night, all the prisoners were kept in a bamboo hut, shackled together without blankets on an earthen floor.

“As our lives were in their hands, we had to bend according to their whims,” says Htein Lin, one of the survivors and now a well-known artist in Yangon. Nang Aung Thwe Kyi, another survivor, says that she had a gun pointed at her head while being asked a question she did not understand: “What did they order you to do?”

Then an idealistic student activist in her 20s, she was accused of being a “second lieutenant” working for the government’s military intelligence. She now lives in exile in Sydney and continues to support the struggle for democracy in Myanmar.

The families of those accused eventually went to the camp. Some survivors, including Nang Aung Thwe Kyi, were released; others, like Htein Lin, managed to escape just to be caught by government forces and sent to prison for many years.

Conspicuous silence
At the time, the killings garnered little attention from the outside world. Yindee Lertcharoenchok, a Thai reporter for the daily The Nation who visited the camp in the north, wrote about it in her Bangkok-based newspaper. This correspondent highlighted the murders in the July 16, 1992, issue of the now defunct Hong Kong-based weekly Far Eastern Economic Review.

Many international organizations that directly and indirectly funded the anti-government student group were silent on the incident. This despite the fact that the ABSDF’s central office on the Thai border had issued a statement on March 1, 1992, justifying the executions on the grounds that those arrested were “government spies” who had “attempted to assassinate” ABSDF leaders.

The ABSDF’s then overall chairman, Naing Aung, visited the camp in the north after the arrests and reportedly did not condemn the executions. He also referred to the victims as “spies” in a statement issued by him at the time. When he returned to Myanmar on a short visit on August 31 this year, angry survivors met him at the airport in Yangon with placards that referred to him as a “killer”.

Ronald Aung Naing, the secretary general of the ABSDF’s northern bureau at the time of the killings, confessed to having a role in the events in a chapter of Thailand-based author Phil Thornton’s book Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border.

Today, Naing Aung heads the Thai-border based Forum for Democracy in Burma, while Ronald Aung Naing is a media trainer in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. Several of those accused of the killings now receive financial support from international advocacy organizations – a situation that is now being highlighted and challenged by survivors of the killings who live in Myanmar and in exile.

Naing Aung said in written response to Asia Times Online questions that he “regrets” the human rights violations, which he says happened without ABSDF headquarters “decision and knowledge”. He said he was not aware of the killings until they were reported in The Nation newspaper and that his headquarters had “no physical and constitutional power to take inquiry and follow up action on what [was] really happening”.

A scholarship Naing Aung received to study at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government was withdrawn in 2002 by the elite US-based institution after survivors of the massacre protested. In 2008, Ronald Aung Naing was hired as a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation‘s (BBC) Burmese language service but later lost the position for the same reason.

Survivors and family members of the fallen who met this correspondent this month in Yangon were eager to tell their stories and argue their case. Several retrospective articles have recently been published in the Myanmar media about the atrocity.

Maung Maung, alias Shwe Karaweik, a brother of survivor Smar Nyi Nyi, has written and published a local-language book entitled My experience of a modern-day tale of 90,000 hinthas, a gripping account of the purge. Until now, as one of the survivors said, they and their family members did not want to go public to avoid having their accounts being used as propaganda by the military against the entire pro-democracy movement.

On the other hand, the survivors have received little support or sympathy from the opposition, a silence that if it endures could discredit the pro-democracy movement. The government’s reluctance to hear their grievances, however, reflects a broader sensitive issue: how to deal with atrocities and human rights abuses committed by the military against the pro-democracy movement and ethnic minority groups?

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations have documented in detail the Myanmar’s military’s use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrations, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture and rape.

“The ABSDF case should also serve as an example to other perpetrators of violence, from government forces to insurgent groups,” said David Mathieson, senior researcher for Myanmar at Human Rights Watch. “This case could spark a broader public debate on addressing issues of past abuses and what mechanism is best suited to end decades of impunity and abuses.”

The first die has been cast by the survivors of the ABSDF killings. Yet it remains to be seen if any judicial institution in Myanmar or elsewhere is willing to take up their case. “Ignoring past violations serves to exculpate the abusers, deny the victims and their families the truth, and potentially embolden a new generation of men with guns to perpetrate violence against civilians with impunity,” says Mathieson. “Myanmar’s defense services have rarely if ever faced adequate legal investigation, nor have ethnic armed groups.”

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