Kachin people fleeing the violence in their villages, Dec 2011
Kachin people fleeing the violence in their villages, Dec 2011 (World Watch Monitor)

What most people know about Myanmar is that Aung San Suu Kyi has been prevented from becoming its leader, despite her overwhelming popularity. That may finally change in elections later this year.

Myanmar is made up of eight major ethnic groups, who all hoped for autonomy after gaining independence after the Second World War. On February 12th, 1947 Suu Kyi’s father, then national leader, signed the Panglong Agreement, promising all ethnic minorities a place in a new Union. (The date is still recognised as Union Day). When, five months later, he was assassinated, civil war and ethnic rebellion followed, continued by some groups to this day. Among them are ethnic groups who are majority Christian: including the Kachin and the Karen.

Yesterday (12th February) the President tried to reach a nationwide ceasefire with all ethnic groups still fighting his government, but reports indicate that only four rebel groups signed, after hours of negotiations.

Stalled ceasefire

A stalled ceasefire means continuing conflict in the northern states, already tense after the rape and murder of two Kachin Christian women in January.

It is thought locally that soldiers from Myanmar’s occupying Army are guilty of attacking the women, who were both found dead in their rooms on a church compound on 20 January. This has led to Myanmar police conducting DNA tests on solders in a bid to identify who killed them.

The murders sparked international outrage, and pictures soon circulated on social media showing the bodies of two brutally beaten women.

Maran Lu Ra, 20, and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, 21, worked for the Kachin Baptist Convention as volunteer teachers at camps for internally displaced people in Kachin. Together with Shan State, it is one of two northern states bordering China that are home to the Kachin people.

The area has been wracked by conflict between Myanmar’s Army and ethnic minority rebels in recent years.

In the days that followed the murders, local villagers alleged that soldiers from Myanmar Army’s Light Infantry Battalion raped and murdered the two women. The Army soon sealed off the area where the killings took place.

There have been many documented cases of sexual assault by Myanmar troops in Kachin since the Myanmar Army broke a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in June 2011.

Legal action

But highlighting these abuses has consequences. On 28 January the Myanmar military threatened legal action against anyone alleging that the military is responsible for the killings of the two teachers.  The President’s office followed suit and directed the threat at the media.

These threats follow on from the ongoing prosecution of Brang Shawng, an ethnic-Kachin man who faces criminal charges for alleging that the Myanmar military is responsible for the death of his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing.

Myanmar Army Major Zar Ni Min Paik initiated the legal case against Brang Shawng under Article 211 of the Myanmar Penal Code, which describes the crime of making ”false charges.”

”We’re seeing worrying trends,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a human rights monitoring organization based in south-east Asia. “Wartime violence against civilians is continuing and the Myanmar military is increasingly using the justice system as a tool to silence critics.

”The authorities should ensure swift justice for misconduct by soldiers rather than shielding them from public scrutiny and accountability.”

The conflict is “intensifying” according to an analyst from the World Watch Research Unit of Open Doors International, which ranks Myanmar as number 25 on a list of the 50 countries in the world where Christians face most persecution.

High level of mistrust

“Negotiations have been going on with all minorities, except two: Kachin and Tla`ang in Shan State,” said the analyst. “The level of mistrust between the Kachin, the army and the government was already high. Now two young Kachin women teaching  in Shan State have been raped and killed, supposedly by army members”.

The killings come at a time of increasing Buddhist radicalism. Myanmar’s parliament has scheduled discussion of laws protecting race and religion for March 2015, which could see a ban on two people of different religions getting married, and on religious conversions.

Kachin, where the two murdered women were from, is a regional hotbed of persecution. Steve Gumaer, co-founder of Partners Relief and Development, an organization trying to reconcile Myanmar’s communities, said: “Myanmar is still under the same kind of military rule and brutality as it has been since the 1990s.

“The Myanmar Army began attacking [the Kachin] in 2010 because they wouldn’t join their army,” he said.

Kachin Baptist Convention, the organisation that sent out the two women typically sends missionaries to work on the boundary between Kachin and Shan states. The area, Guamer said, is rich in natural resources like teak, jade, gold and oil.