Chapter 2 - Executive Summary

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Executive Summary

Thousands of students involved in the 1988 pro-democracy movement in Burma left for ethnic-controlled areas when the military staged a coup on September 18, 1988. On November 1, 1988, they formed the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) in the Karen National Union (KNU)-controlled area called Kawmura.
Around the same time students established ABSDF-Kachin Camp in the area of northern Burma controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). Later, as more students from different parts of the country joined the camp, the students changed the name of their camp to ABSDF-Northern.

In August 1991, amidst growing suspicions that government agents had infiltrated the camp, a number of ABSDF-Northern members were arrested and detained on charges of being spies. Many were allegedly tortured and some reportedly died during brutal interrogation sessions or from detention conditions. Tensions continued and the number of arrests rose. By the beginning of 1992 106 ABSDF-Northern members had allegedly been detained, and over 20 killed. On February 12, 1992 fifteen of the remaining detainees were executed on orders of the ABSDF-Northern Central Committee.  Of those detainees who survived, approximately 55 escaped in May 1992 to the Sino-Burma border where they were arrested by Chinese authorities and later handed over to Burmese officials. Others returned to homes in Burma via other means.

The Truth and Justice Committee of the ABSDF (TJC) was formed on January 8, 2012 to carry out an inquiry into the incidents of 1991-92 in the ABSDF-Northern camp. The Committee aimed to establish the truth, and to restore the dignity of those who suffered. The TJC also strove to be a forum for those involved to discuss what happened with the hope that it would provide a measure of reconciliation among the persons involved, and allow current and former members of ABSDF to work together for our common aims of restoring democracy in Burma. In 2013-2014 the TJC interviewed over sixty people related to the incidents including survivors, family members of those killed, witnesses, and alleged perpetrators. The report presents and analyzes these first-hand accounts to take a first step at establishing a clear historical record of what took place in the ABSDF-Northern Camp.

The Truth and Justice Committee focused on two types of human rights violations that took place within the ABSDF-Northern Camp: extrajudicial killings; and torture and ill treatment. It analyzed evidence collected from interviews to determine if the incidents amounted to human rights violations under international human rights law.

The Committee documented 36 extrajudicial killings that took place in the ABSDF-Northern Camp between August 1991 and April 1992. It found that:
  • 15 people were executed on February 12, 1992 on Assam Hill
  • 2 others were executed in the Pha Kant area in 1992
  • 11 people were killed during interrogations (Most deaths were linked to torture)
  • 8 people were killed in detention (Killings were linked to a variety of factors including torture [beatings, shootings and denial of medical care] and the cumulative effect of detention conditions)

The TJC found that torture was used extensively against detainees. It was most often practiced during interrogations with the aim of getting detainees to confess to being spies and provide information about alleged contacts and activities. Widely used forms of torture during interrogation included:
  • Electric shock
  • Beatings
  • Dropping of hot tar on the body
  • Burning with hot nails/knives
  • Rolling on the shins with bamboo rods
  • Chopping of wrists
  • Use of detonators (group interrogations)

Torture was also used outside of interrogations to intimidate and humiliate detainees, and to punish them for violating strict ‘rules’ of detention. This was accompanied by living conditions that amounted to ill-treatment. Detainees were subject to beatings at any time. They were blindfolded, forced to wear shackles, and had their hands ties behind their backs except during daytime work periods. At night detainees were restricted to urinating in small bottles and forced to hold forced postures (i.e. sleeping on one side) without moving. 

The report explores the context in which these violations were able to take place. Some of the factors that are believed to have contributed to the incidents include the hierarchical nature and strict military culture of the ABSDF-Northern Camp, lack of trust and factionalism in the camp, a leadership structure that concentrated power in the hands of senior military leaders, isolation of the camp and lack of awareness about human rights, and ongoing repression from the Burmese government. The ABSDF-Northern Intelligence Unit played a key role in driving events. Instead of gathering data on Tatmadaw movements, it focused on monitoring ABSDF members of all rank and level. Taken together these factors created a climate of fear, paranoia, and unchecked power in the ABSDF-Northern Camp. The desertion, arrest and killing of Soe Min Aung in early August 1991, on the eve of 8-8-88 commemorations, were the sparks that ignited tensions and unleashed the wave of arrests, torture, and killings.

This report also describes the challenges and painful experiences of the survivors, family members and the alleged perpetrators. While some survivors reported that they were impacted physically (wrist pain, joint pain and head injuries), many spoke about the emotional and social toll that the incidents took on their lives. Many reported a lack of trust in ABSDF members or people in general. Some feel angry and experienced outbursts of aggression. Others deal with ongoing feelings of sadness and loss.  Many feel that the stigma of being labeled, or having a family member labeled as a spy, is the most difficult challenge. The survivors and families of victims in Katha painted a particularly poignant portrait of the ongoing effects of what took place in the ABSDF-Northern Camp. Some relatives of those killed remain mistrustful of those who survived. There is an urgent need to provide effective remedies to help those affected by ongoing pain, trauma, and marginalization.

While the Committee was not a legal entity imbued with the power to determine legal responsibility for violations, it addresses the issue of accountability in this report. It looks into the issue of organizational accountability on the part of both ABSDF-Northern and ABSDF Central Leadership at the time.

In terms of the ABSDF-Northern, the TJC made the following findings:
  • The ABSDF-Northern acted alone.
  • Military leadership, and particularly the Intelligence Unit, was key perpetrators of arrests, interrogations; and killings, torture and ill-treatment during interrogations and detention.
  •  Central Committee members of the ABSDF – Northern had overall command responsibility for the human rights violations that took place. Some Central Committee members of the ABSDF – Northern also played direct roles in perpetrating violations.

In terms of the ABSDF Central Leadership, the Committee found that:
  • the ABSDF Central Leadership had little to no effective control over the ABSDF-Northern Camp at the time of the incidents due to geographical distance, communication challenges, and the loose nature of the relationship between ABSDF HQ and its camps at the time. 
  • the ABSDF Central Leadership was informed about incidents in the Northern camp by at least three different ways during its fractious Third Conference. Key leaders at the Third Conference were aware that arrests and killings had taken place.
  • the ABSDF Central Leadership failed to adequately respond or address the incidents in the Northern Camp during its Third Conference. The failure to do so lead to new and ongoing violations.
  • the ABSDF made some efforts to address the situation in the ABSDF-Northern Camp such as sending an advice-giving message via telegraph, dispatching Kyaw Kyaw (an ABSDF- Northern delegate at the Third Conference) back to the camp, and sending Dr. Naing Aung to visit the camp after the executions. These however had little impact on preventing or addressing violations, or bringing about an end to the crisis.
  • two of the statements released by the ABSDF in the wake of the executions described them as acts against “government spies.”  This sent the signal that ABSDF Central Leadership condoned the executions in some ways.

The report publishes a list of names of those believed to have been part of the ABSDF-Northern Central Committee and Intelligence Unit during the 1991-1992 incidents. Alongside this it publishes quotes from witnesses and alleged perpetrators about how they view accountability in the current context. While the TJC could not determine individual responsibility, it hoped that these lists and quotes will prompt further discussions about dealing with the past.

The Truth and Justice Committee believes that this report represents an important first step by the ABSDF to come to terms with the violations committed within the ABSDF-Northern camp. Acknowledgement of the suffering of victims and survivors is central to restoring their dignity, and the organization itself.

Recommendations

The report concludes with a short list of recommendations to practically address the incidents that took place in the ABSDF-Northern Camp. The Truth and Justice Committee believes the following recommendations are in the best interests of the survivors, the family members and the ABSDF as a whole.

To the ABSDF
  • Provide health assistance and rehabilitation services to survivors and the families of those killed.
  • Officially reinstate the ABSDF membership of those who had it taken away.
  • Individuals responsible for violations must provide official apologies.
  • Revoke the leadership position in Central Leading Committee of any person involved in violations in the ABSDF-Northern Camp. Bar any person involved in violations in the ABSDF-Northern Camp from holding leadership positions in Central Leading Committee  in the future.
To the government of Burma
  • Enact policy and legislation to provide rehabilitation* to survivors and victims of the ABSDF –Northern Camp and all victims of human rights violations.
  • Recognize the report of the Truth and Justice Committee and support future initiatives for dealing with the past.
  • Help to build a society that respects the Rule of Law and promotes accountability. 
To national human rights groups and civil society organizations
  • Actively support truth-seeking initiatives and investigations that shed light on human rights violations.
  • Launch and/or promote initiatives that honor the victims and survivors of the ABSDF-Northern Camp, and all victims of Burma’s conflict.
  • Assist in providing psychosocial support and rehabilitation services for survivors and victims of violations in the ABSDF-Northern Camp, and all survivors of human rights violations in Burma.