Chapter 5 - Impact of Human Rights Violations

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Human rights violations can have a profound and long-lasting effect on victims and survivors. Many, especially survivors of torture and ill treatment, experience trauma. This is because the purpose of torture is often not only to gain information or physically punish an individual but also to reduce them to a level of helplessness or distress in order to break down their will. This can lead to short-term emotional impact or even long-term changes in the behavior or personality of a survivor. It is important to remember that trauma is a normal human reaction. No one chooses to experience a traumatic event. It is a shocking experience that is more than a person can handle.

Trauma affects a person’s wellbeing on many levels: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. It can also impact a person’s livelihood and ability to survive economically. It affects not only survivors but also their family, friends, and communities.

The wounds of past human rights violations do not simply go away with the passage of time. Many experience problems that can last throughout their lives. For others the impact may fluctuate, with pain or suffering coming back unexpectedly years after the violation took place. For some trauma is triggered by reminders of the event: the anniversary of a killing, meeting someone on the street involved in the incident, or even a smell that conjures up painful memories of a room where torture took place. It is crucial that victims and survivors have access to psychosocial support and social services to help them address ongoing consequences.

While victims and survivors bear the brunt of trauma, there is some evidence that those that are involved in torture and human rights violations are also affected. This includes witnesses and bystanders to abuses. Studies of perpetrators of violent crimes found that nearly half experienced intrusive memories about what they were involved in.
Parents of Maung Maung (aka) Than Swe Oo, who was killed on february 12, 1992, show their beloved son's pictures

Findings of the TJC

During the course of its work the Truth and Justice Committee asked interviewees about the impact of the incidents in the ABSDF-Northern Camp on their lives.  While some reported physical and economic problems, many more spoke about the emotional and social impact of what took place.

Physical Impacts

According to the Center for Victims of Torture, common physical effects of torture include headaches, digestion problems, joint damage, dizziness, chest pain, and weakness. Survivors of beatings also suffer a high rate head injuries leading to neurological damage. More resent research suggests that torture may impair the immune system of victims leading to higher incidence of cancer.

Survivors of the ABSDF-Northern Camp reported a variety of physical traumas to the TJC.  The most common ailments reported included back pain, joint pain, amnesia, and head injuries. Most of these were attributed to beatings, torture and ill treatment during repeated interrogation sessions and months of poor living conditions while in detention.  The following accounts illustrate some of the types of physical trauma that the survivors faced.

“I tried to protect my thigh with my back because I could not take it anymore. So my back got beaten and kicked. [Afterwards] when I lay down on my back, my wrist joints made a sound as if it was cracking or failing. When that happened I couldn’t turn over on my other side. It went on for 4 years. If I didn’t hear that sound (from my joints), I felt very stiff. Then when it made a sound, I couldn’t turn myself. I felt better when I got acupuncture treatment with the Chinese acupuncturist that my Mom found. It was my painful wrist. The rest was my arm.  It is really painful. I can’t take it during the cold weather because it is aching so much.  My bones are aching because I endured so many beatings with the bamboo sticks.”  

“Regarding my health, I have stiffness and pain in my wrist. It just began recently. I also have a problem with my neck. I thought it was just normal pain so I didn’t do a medical check up. Last year I had a pain in my kidney so I got an X-ray done and I found out that I have serious spondylitis [pain in the vertebrae]. There is also another thing – I can’t take it when it gets cold, [I get pain] in my legs and shins.”  

“I had two small strokes in my lower body. It might be because of a blood clot during the cold season. It was not so serious. But the trouble is sometimes I don’t remember anything.”  “I had a very strong blow to my head. I still have headaches. I got checked with machines and they found that there are blood clots in my head.  I was shown the size of my blood clots and they were more than half the size that can kill people. I have been on the medication that comes from America. It helped me to dissolve the blood clots and improve my memory. That is why I can tell you all this much.”  “Regarding my health, my wrist was beaten and my shins were rolled over  with very solid bamboo rods. The worst part is my wrist that was beaten very often with the flat-wooden piece that locally called Lago. We were beaten with that thing like that. The rest was not harm enough to put my life danger.”

Psychological and Emotional Impact

Around the world survivors of torture and ill treatment report a common range of emotional and mental trauma. Common symptoms include depression, anxiety, confusion, poor memory, and sleeping problems. Many victims also feel ongoing sadness, shame and even guilt because they survived. Sometimes thoughts about traumatic events enter the mind of a survivor seemingly from out of nowhere, even when they do not want to think about it. Some victims experience nightmares and do not feel safe even during sleep. These kind of “invading” thoughts make it hard to concentrate and can leave survivors with the feeling that they are “going crazy” because they cannot control their minds. Some develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by symptoms such as recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the traumatic event(s), and hyper-arousal.  

Many survivors also experience difficulties or disruptions in interpersonal relationships after a traumatic event.  They can feel that the world is no longer a safe place and find it hard to trust anyone.  Irritability, impatience, and angry outbursts are common and can be scary. Many survivors also go to great lengths to avoid people, places or things that remind them of the traumatic event. Together with mistrust, this can lead to social withdrawal and isolation. Some victims increase their use of alcohol or other substances after an event.

The TJC heard about and observed some of these types of impacts when speaking with survivors and family members of those killed. For many, the silence and stigma around the ABSDF-Northern case has meant that they have not been able to express their emotions publicly about what happened until recently. For many relatives of those killed, talking to the TJC brought up a range of emotions including sadness, anger and pride in the sacrifice their loved ones made.

U Pauk, the father of Kyaw Kyaw Oo, told the Committee:

“My son was smart and helpful to his parents. Whenever I think of him, I cry. Now you are asking about him and it makes me miss him a lot. You can imagine how committed he was. His spirit never came back home. I am really sad. I don’t about the country but for us it is a great loss.”

Thin Thin, the brother of Ko Cho Gyi and cousin of Htun Aung Kyaw, remembered her loved ones with pain and pride:

“Before Ko Cho Gyi left for the ABSDF he said goodbye to his mother. He paid his last respect to her saying, ‘If I ever did anything wrong to you physically or verbally, I apologize. The path I am going to take is difficult. I may give my life. During the independence movement there were so many unsung heroes who died along with Aung San. There were so many unknown heroes. If I ever come back home I may be one of these. Please be proud of your son as an unsung martyr.’ That is what he said to our mother. It was as if he knew his fate…When I talk about it, it feels very painful.”  

The Truth and Justice Committee also believes that a lot of the people who witnessed or were involved in the violations in the ABSDF-Northern Camp have been affected emotionally.

Ko Theik Tun Oo, a former Battalion commander of the Battalion #501, told the TJC about problems he faced after leaving the ABSDF-Northern Camp. While living with ABSDF members in the Mae Sot area, he was sometimes overcome by uncontrollable levels of anger, and physically attacked colleagues for no apparent reason. He recalled his emotional experiences :

“It was in August [1996] when I returned back [to the Thailand-Burma border], I met them [Political activists, who recently fled to the border] and we talked. Then I realized that we were wrong.  I felt very sorry. ”

He was very insecure when people spoke about the events back in the ABSDF – Northern.

“Frankly speaking, I didn’t know (why) but I kind of knew  in my mind that the way they spoke made me feel suspicious.  That included Ko (name) and Ko (name) but I couldn’t think of why it had happened to me. But having thought it through, it could be related to the Northern incidents. I felt like ‘was I being distrusted by my most trusted comrades?’ I felt like that.”

The TJC also learned about the suicide of Nay Dun, a former member of top leadership of the ABSDF-Kachin and a member of the Central Committee of the ABSDF –Northern when the incidents took place. He committed suicide in late 2014 while the TJC was approaching him for an interview. Nay Dun struggled with depression throughout his life and attempted suicide previously. While the TJC has no proof that the suicide was linked to the events at the ABSDF-Northern camp, it is possible that the impact of events that he witnessed or was a part of contributed to his emotional state.

Some survivors also grappled with anger and aggressive outbursts. As Htein Linn told the Committee:

“We have a lot of negative impact on our social lives. For instance, we don’t have any kind of empathy when we deal with other people. Normally we are OK. But sometimes when we lose control, we do something very bad to someone. I heard about Ko Theik [had aggressive outbursts] and Ko Nay Dun [committed suicide in 2014] and I wasn’t surprised. I myself have done similar things many times. There was a ceiling beam at Bo Bo’s Grandma’s house.

I jumped and hit my head against the beam so hard that the beam was shaking as if was Belu. I punched every thing I saw. I hit my head against anything in front of me. For instance when we were having the palm drink I smashed all the clay drinking pots on my head one by one. And then after smashing all the pots, I kicked everything around me. I couldn’t control myself. I was very violent and aggressive. That happened to me.”

Social and economic impact

Survivors who made it out of the Northern camp in 1992 talked about the many challenges they faced in returning to civilian life. Many were monitored and harassed by local security forces. Some were even arrested and detained for years as political prisoners. This lead to repeated abuse, trauma and stigma within the community. 

For some this also led to difficulties in returning to school and getting jobs. Nang Saw told the Committee how she was repeatedly denied entry at school because of her experience:

“Because I am a woman and was living in a rural area, I didn’t have any friends or community. When I got back home, I got in a lot of trouble in Bamaw. I tried to enroll at the local school, but the school didn’t accept my registration. When the teachers accepted me, principle said ‘no’.  When the principle said ‘yes’, the deputy principle said ‘No’ again.”

Tun Oo Khine explained how he was forced to give up a critical job training opportunity:

“It was 1996 and I came to take the refrigeration mechanics training in Mandalay. I was staying at Nyi Nyi Kyaw’s house. And the Military intelligence #1 tried to arrest me. I didn’t know the reason so I had to come back to Shwebo. Nyi Nyi Kyaw got arrested along with other friends.”

These struggles lead to disappointment and long-term economic challenges for some survivors and their families. As Paw Oo told the Committee:

My family was very sad as they put all their hope in me because I am the eldest son. I was in the middle of my education [when I joined ABSDF] and I could not do anything after all these things had happened to us. My parents got very sad.”

One of those involved in incidents at the ABSDF-Northern Camp, Ronald Aung Naing, also told the Committee how his career was affected by events and the actions of survivors in its aftermath. Unlike the survivors, Ronald Aung Naing felt that he was still able to find work.

“I was affected personally and professionally. There were complaints not to employ me, especially by Ko Htein Linn and his wife. When Ko Htein Linn wrote the complaint against me, it wouldn’t have had much impact on me, but his wife, as former British Ambassador to Burma and officer of the British Foreign Affairs Department, it really made an impact on me. I have been fired twice already. But I can still manage to get work as I am appreciated for the work I do. People know about Aung Naing (me), they know I am not drunk for the power while many think I am a bad guy and accusing me that I killed Htun Aung Kyaw for power.”

Many survivors also spoke about the impact of the ABSDF-Northern incidents on their relationships with friends and community members.  The stigma of being accused of being spies was especially devastating, and brought about great feelings of anger, mistrust, and sadness. After devoting their lives to the struggle, many survivors felt and still feel betrayed by the ABSDF and the lack of acknowledgement and support for what they suffered. 

Some survivors found it hard to trust people  and were reluctant to discuss what happened except with family and close friends. Some reported that they were suspicious of people in general, especially those that asked questions their past.

Nang Saw eloquently shared her story with the Committee:

“I had unintentional resentments against  people. I didn’t trust anybody. When I got back to Burma, I didn’t trust anybody and I didn’t want to talk with anyone. I only spoke with people who spoke the same language. Even some NLD members visited my home and asked some questions such as when I got imprisoned and on what charges. I told my Mom, ‘don’t answer them. We can’t trust the NLD people.’ I was very suspicious of everyone. I didn’t want people to know about me. I was also suspicious of political activists.”

The incidents of 1991-92 had a profound effect on relationships between ABSDF-Northern members. This includes not only the relationships between survivors and those who were responsible for abuses, but also between witnesses, and other ABSDF members who were present at the camp at the time. Deep feelings of distrust linger.

Sein Aye, a former ABSDF-Northern Central Committee member, was intercepted by the government on the Indian border in the late 1990s and held as a political prisoner for over a decade. Released in 2012, he spoke to the TJC about his feelings about the past and the ABSDF.

“When we went (joined the armed struggle), we had indomitable (or) youthful anger. But when we faced some barricades, the way we dealt with them was flawed, I think. The organization is stained in doubt, which is not good. I myself worry that somebody is going to do something to me if I go back to the organization now. I still have that worry. Before people were suspicious of someone released from the prison… When I got out, I felt lonely and the impact (from this event) is still affecting me. It won’t be good for long time.”

Min Htay, a former member of the ABSDF-Northern Camp who witnessed what took place, gave the TJC this poignant account:

“Because of that, it destroyed our unity.  We also suffered emotional pain. We are keeping our distance when we meet in person. No matter how close we were before, now we are looking at each other with doubt. We have to be very careful when we speak. When we met any of them, we were tearful. We tried very hard not to be. It happened when I met Nang Saw during the 20th Anniversary of the ABSDF. Both of us cried very hard. We didn’t know what to say. That happened.”

Survivors, Victims and Families in Katha

The Truth and Justice Committee traveled to Katha as part of its work and was struck by the impact that the incidents of 1991-92 continued to have on survivors and families. The case study of Katha illustrates the interconnected and ongoing pain caused by abuses committed at the ABSDF-Northern Camp.

Katha is a small town in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar, on the west side of Irrawaddy River. As part of its proud history, Katha was the home of legendary English writer George Orwell lived while he served in the Indian Imperial Police. Orwell made Katha the setting of Burmese Days, his first novel.

Nine student activists from Katha joined ABSDF-Northern between 1988 and 1990. Sadly, only four of them made it back home. All nine were arrested and detained under the charges of “spies” and five of them were either killed during interrogation or executed on February 12, 1992.

While conducting interviews and gathering data in Katha, the Committee encountered tremendous bitterness against the ABSDF and its leadership. Understandably, the Committee was received with  suspicions. It took time to address concerns and explain its work.

Many family members of the survivors, and those killed feel that being relatives of those “disgracefully accused as spies” brings enormous shame to their families. They want the dignity of their fallen loved ones to be restored. 

One of the fathers stated,
“I would understand if I had lost my son in the armed struggle, and would have been a proud father. But I can’t accept having my son labeled as spy, tortured and killed. I won’t accept any apology and demand justice.”

Another father expressed similar views:

“Prove to me why my son was charged as a spy. Did he destroy the ABSDF-Northern or did he make it better? All of them from Katha joined (the ABSDF) with their own belief. It was a great loss for the parents.  You will understand when you become parents yourselves. For the parents, 
I can’t let bygones be bygones.”

More surprisingly, the TJC found high levels of distrust between survivors and some family members of those who didn’t come home. Even in such a small town there were no social ties with some family members and the rest of the survivors.

This was demonstrated by the fact that when the TJC arrived in Katha and asked the survivors to take them to the parents of those killed, the survivors explained that the parents have strong suspicions about them because they escaped the bloody incident while  their loved ones didn’t. Worse, the parents accuse the survivors of being complicit in the killings of their sons.

As one survivor explained:

“Until recently, we always tried to avoid seeing the parents of our fellow comrades who didn’t come back home with us. The reason we avoid them is so we don’t have answer the question ‘how come you came back but not my sons?’ Sometimes we wish we also would have been killed along with them so that we don’t have to be in this situation.”

This distrust was confirmed when the Committee met with some of the parents of those who were killed. One father told the Committee:

“I wouldn’t have let you all in my house if I had known that they (the survivors) took you to my house. I don’t trust them. If I knew you were with them, I would have driven you out and wouldn’t have let you in my house.”

Addressing the Impact

It is a heart-rending position that all survivors and families of former ABSDF- Northern in Katha Town are living with the ongoing impact of what happened.  The emotional and physical pain of the Katha families that the TJC encountered was palpable.

There is an urgent need to provide effective remedying measurements to Katha survivors and victims, and to all that have been negatively impacted, Types of remedies include health care, psychosocial support, scholarships, memorialization, accountability, and providing the truth about what happened.

The Truth and Justice Committee is hopeful that this report is the first step to fulfilling victims’ rights to truth. This report also contains recommendations for further ways that the ABSDF, government, and civil society can provide additional support.