Chapter 6 - Accountability

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Accountability

Accountability is one of the main objectives of the ABSDF Truth and Justice Committee, and we recognize that it is a significant task. The Committee was created to document a historical record based on the truth, to promote accountability, and to assign responsibility for what happened. The Committee believes that holding perpetrators accountable is an essential part of providing justice for the survivors whose rights were severely abused.

Fathers of Kyaw Kyaw Oo and Tin Maung Aye, both were killed during the incident

Definition of the Accountability

Accountability refers not only to court proceedings that are usually part of criminal justice efforts, but also includes a more comprehensive fulfillment of the rights to truth, to remedy, and to guarantees of non-recurrence. Accountability is the opposite of impunity. Diane Orentlicher’s “Report of the independent expert to update the Set of Principles to combat impunity” asserts the state’s obligation to “to investigate violations; to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered; to ensure the inalienable right to know the truth about violations; and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations.”

It is important to note that accountability is the state’s obligation, and the Truth and Justice Committee’s efforts to reveal the truth do not free the state from its responsibility. As has been widely documented, the military that ruled Burma from 1962 to 2011 committed large-scale, serious human rights violations. The current government has shown no political will to uphold its obligations to the victims of those violations. The TJC believes that comprehensive accountability measures are needed to uphold these rights of all victims. Our efforts to address the 1991-1992 ABSDF-Northern incidents must be understood within that larger context. The Committee does not have judicial power and it recognizes that only the state can deliver the justice through an existing legal system, but the political will and technical capacity of Myanmar’s judicial system is sorely lacking.

The Committee also believes that the victims of the 1991-92 incidents should not have to wait until the state initiates a comprehensive initiative to address the past, and this report is a first step towards fulfilling the rights of the victims by revealing the truth about the incidents. The Committee has documented events and heard first-hand accounts of those involved. It reached out as thoroughly as it could to all relevant actors and honored the rights to truth as per its mandate and scope.
Meeting with current ABSDF-Northern leaders

Levels of responsibility

This report identifies two levels of responsibility: Organizational Responsibility and Individual Responsibility. The Committee will analyze both levels in this chapter based upon its documented data.  The Committee also recognizes that organizations are composed of individuals, therefore, the distinction does not aim to remove responsibility from individuals by putting it on the organizations; rather, the analysis aims to provide the context in which the incident took place, to identify the different roles individuals had (e.g. direct perpetrator, decision-makers and commanders, etc.), and to contribute to recommendations that both individuals and organizations should now take.

Organizational Responsibility

Organizational responsibility is an important aspect of analysis in understanding how and why past human rights violations took place and in establishing accountability. ABSDF’s decision to conduct an inquiry into its responsibility for past violations has a precedent in other revolutionary movements. Umkhonto we Sizwe (known as MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, was accused of committing gross human rights violation in its exiled detention centers over its fellow men who were arrested and detained for acts of mutiny and espionage. The ANC formed two separate commissions to address its past human rights violations as well as taking organizational responsibility. In its final report the Skweyiya Commission, outlined its formation while stating the importance of organizational accountability, “We shall do so in the consciousness that our struggle for liberation is imbued with the morality of democracy and justice, of progress and peace.”

While the situation in Burma is obviously not the same as in South Africa, we recognize this common impulse to deal with past human rights violations. The Truth and Justice Committee recognizes the importance of assigning organizational responsibility in order to recognize the past misdeeds, restore and respect the dignity of the survivors, pass on the culture of accountability, restore the dignity of the organization, and prevent human rights violations from occurring again in future.

The TJC defines two parts of organizational responsibility in the incidents of ABSDF-Northern:
  • The role of the ABSDF-Northern
  • The involvement of the ABSDF (Headquarters)

(1) Organizational Responsibility of the ABSDF-Northern

The TJC evaluated the role of the ABSDF-Northern in two ways:
Whether it acted alone in taking decisions and committing human rights violations
The command structure of the camp and which sections of camp leadership bear responsibility for violations

Autonomy of ABSDF-Northern
In conducting its research the TJC found that the ABSDF-Northern acted alone in committing human rights violations. In interviews with camp leaders nearly all noted that the ABSDF-Northern acted independently.

For instance in an interview with the TJC, Aung Naing, former Chairperson of the ABSDF-Northern Camp, explained how the decision to execute 15 members on February 12 was an autonomous one:

“We decided by ourselves as we were given our own jurisdiction. We barely let the Southern [ABSDF Headquarters] know what we had done. Until we had that decision, they [ABSDF Headquarters] didn’t know the details of what was happening here.”

As a result the TJC places the greatest responsibility for violations on ABSDF-Northern leadership.

ABSDF-Northern Command Structure
The TJC also looked at the command structure of the ABSDF-Northern Camp to determine if there were particular parts of the organization that bear particular responsibility for violations.

As noted in the chapter on Context, the command structure of the ABSDF-Northern concentrated power in the hands of senior military leadership because of their dual roles as both military leaders and Central Committee leaders.  The TJC found evidence that some ABSDF-Northern military structures played a direct role in instigating and carrying out human rights violations. The ABSDF Intelligence Unit was the main mechanism carrying out the incidents. Most survivors and witnesses cited the Intelligence Unit as the key initiator and perpetrator of arrests and interrogations in the camp. Their violations have been accounted in details by the survivors in the Human Rights Violation chapter. Others that are said to have occasionally taken part in arrests, torture and killings include some Battalion Commanders, some Central Committee members, and officers of the Headquarters Security Unit. Due to their leading role, the TJC finds the Intelligence Unit is most responsible for the torture and killings that took place during interrogations.

The TJC also finds that the ABSDF-Northern Central Committee (CC) bears the brunt of command responsibility for violations that took place in 1991-1992. The TJC notes however that a large number of Central Committee members were arrested and became victims themselves.   The Central Committee was ultimately responsible for all decisions and actions taken in the camp. This included arrests, interrogations, and oversight of detention conditions of those arrested. The ABSDF-Northern Central Committee failed to denounce or halt the widespread torture and ill treatment of detainees. It failed to prevent or address responsibility for the deaths of 19 detainees that were killed during interrogation or died during as a result of inhumane detention conditions.

Most strikingly the ABSDF-Northern Central Committee took the leading role in ordering the executions of fifteen ABSDF members on February 12, 1992. According to the information that the TJC collected, the Central Committee of the ABSDF-Northern made its  decision unanimously after discussions. The meeting with eight Central Committee members of ABSDF-Northern and one Battalion Commander was held on February 11, 1992. Chief of Staff Than Chaung (now in Tharrawaddy Prison) and General Secretary Myo Win (died in action in 1992) reported to the CC based on the information that they had gathered from the interrogations. As one witness told the TJC, the evidence for the decisions rested with the military leaders within the CC who lead the interrogations:

“All of us were there. Aung Naing, Myo Win, Than Chaung, La Seng, Sein Aye, Nay Dun and Aung Gyi were there. We decided upon their findings. Supposedly, they were solid. We couldn’t actually ask whether or not they were substantial. The interrogations were handled by lower level personnel but they were supervised by Myo Win and Than Chaung. But when they wanted to make a decision, they called upon a Central Committee meeting and made it like the Central Committee’s decision.”

La Seng served as Joint General Secretary (2) at that time. He also highlighted the role of Myo Win in the Central Committee’s decision:

“We were debriefed in short. Myo Win was doing all reporting. We were not allowed to read all [of the interrogation reports], frankly speaking. I could read some. I didn’t know some part of case regarding Htun Aung Kyaw. Myo Win did it by himself.”

Yet La Seng also acknowledged the Central Committee’s role – and his own role:

“Yes, it was the [ABSDF-Northern] Central Committee decision. I took part in it, and listened to it. We also gave our opinion. Myo Win led the whole thing while we were more like supporting. That happened and that is how I got involved.”

While the TJC believes that Myo Win and Than Chaung played a key role in leading evidence, the Central Committee accepted the information and used it to make decisions.One witness claimed that the CC considered several options. 

Kyaw Kyaw, the delegate from the ABSDF Third Conference who was present at the meeting, described the decision making to the TJC in this way:

“We didn’t want to keep it [the current situation] for long. We did not want to keep all of them here, but we also did not want to release them. We had these thoughts. We preferred to transfer them to the ICRC. But when we had no other options, we decided to sentence them to death.”

No other eyewitnesses mentioned other alternatives. The TJC strongly believes that the focus of the CC’s discussion was executions. The main debate was around how many and who to execute. According to multiple eyewitness reports, the Central Committee initially considered sentencing to death nearly 50 out of total 106 detained ABSDF members. Later, however, they reduced the number to 15. Aung Naing reflected on the decision-making process in his testimony to the TJC:

“We had a meeting on February 11 and made the decision. Than Chaung, Myo Win, Sein Aye, Nay Dun, Kyaw Kyaw, Aung Swe Oo and myself were in the meeting. Aung Swe Oo was at the meeting as a military officer. Initially, there were discussions to execute 50 of those who had been arrested. It didn’t make sense to execute 50 people. We had our doubts. Mainly Myo Win and myself said not to kill a lot. Finally, we came to the agreement to execute 15 people, and we would let some go and we would reinstate some into the organization.”

The TJC was not able to determine how the CC came up with the final list of 15. The TJC believes that the CC chose detainees with visible injuries (such as Cho Gyi and Aung Phoe) and outspoken members who were unlikely to keep silent if released. Kyaw Kyaw claimed there were a variety of reasons in his statement to the TJC:

“Finally, we had to resort to that option. We made the list based on who were the most responsible, who had brought the most destruction to the organization, so on and so forth. Then we came up with a list of 15. We all made the decision to sentence them to death. Myo Win, Than Chaung, Nay Dun, Sein Aye, Aung Gyi, Aung Naing and myself were included in the meeting.”

Key Findings

In reviewing the evidence the TJC makes the following findings:The ABSDF-Northern acted alone.

  • Military leadership, and particularly the Intelligence Unit, were key perpetrators of arrests, interrogations; and killings, torture and ill-treatment during interrogations and detention.
  • Central Committee members of the ABSDF-Northern takes overall command responsibility for human rights violations. Some Central Committee members of the ABSDF-Northern also played direct roles in perpetrating violations.

(2) Responsibility of the ABSDF Headquarters (HQ) and Central Leadership

The Truth and Justice Committee also considered the responsibility of the overall ABSDF for preventing and addressing human rights violations in the ABSDF-Northern Camp. In order to evaluate their responsibility, the TJC considered three issues:
  1. The power structure and relationship between ABSDF-Northern and the central ABSDF organizational leadership at the time. What was the management structure of the ABSDF during the time of the incidents? What kind of control or command responsibility, if any, did the ABSDF have over the Northern Camp?
  2. What the ABSDF Leadership knew about the violations in the Northern Camp and when they found about them
  3. The steps, if any, the ABSDF leadership took to stop, prevent, and/or address human rights violations in the Northern camp in 1991-92. Were they adequate?

2.1 Relationship between ABSDF-Northern and ABSDF Central Leadership

The All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) was founded on November 1, 1988 in the area controlled by the Karen National Union  near the Thailand – Burma border.  When it was established the ABSDF operated 11 camps in areas controlled by ethnic armies along Burma’s borders with Thailand, India and China.

The ABSDF was established at its 1st Conference, which took place in Southern Burma (near the Thai border) from November 1 to 5, 1988. Delegates from ABSDF’s founding camps worked together at the inaugural conference to draft a Constitution, to outline polices, and to elect leaders. The first elected Chairperson of the ABSDF was Htun Aung Kyaw, who served from 1998-1989.

The 1988 Constitution established the Central Executive Committee (ABSDF CEC) as the highest governing body of the ABSDF. The CEC had extensive powers to make directives, rules, and punishments, as long as it was with the “decision of all the CEC.”  The CEC was however compelled to follow decisions made by the ABSDF Central Committee (ABSDF CC), which was in turn elected by delegates at regularly held Conferences.

ABSDF’s Constitution also laid out the vision and governing principles of the organization to which all camps were expected to adhere. These included strict rules for ABSDF membership, which were outlined in Chapter Five of the Constitution. According to Article 26, some of the things ABSDF members were prohibited from included:
  • being members of any other political organization
  • using drugs
  • social misbehavior
  • committing rape
  • harming innocent people
  • abusing power and harassing people under their command
  • misusing budget or other properties for their own benefit or anyone else’s
  • gambling

In addition ABSDF members must:
  • avoid behavior that would result in bringing shame or harming the unity of  the organization
  • avoid behavior/expression that would bring harm to the dignity of ABSDF and its members

Article 26(i) specifically addressed the issue of spies by stipulating that all ABSDF members must avoid any activities that can leak the secret activities of the organization.

The Constitution also laid out a range of punishments for different crimes, including strong warning, stripping of rank, temporary suspension, expulsion, arrest and prosecution. For those who committed more serious crimes such as rape, harming innocent people, or abuse of power, arrest, prosecution and a death sentence were prescribed. For those found guilty of spying (Article 26(i)), the ABSDF Constitution recommended the death sentence.

While the ABSDF Constitution laid out strict rules and modes of punishment, it also set out measures to ensure that those accused of crimes were given due process and the right to appeal.  Article (31) of Chapter (4) guarantees the rights to defend through a fair trial.

Of particular importance is Article 28, which states that: If someone makes a complaint/appeal against any decision or punishment made with the decision of the CEC, they can apply to the nearest conference. During that appeal process, death sentence or any sentence must be suspended.

This effectively meant that an ABSDF member could appeal a death sentence all the way up to a Conference.

While the Constitution set out policies and codes on paper, implementation and enforcement in camps is believed to have been loose in the early days of the ABSDF. During this time camps dealt with individual crimes on their own.

With little resources and means of communication, overall day-to-day management was left to camp leaders. From 1988-1992 most camps operated relatively independently of each other and Headquarters. While each camp had to elect a Camp Chairperson and Camp Central Committee, they were free to decide upon their activities, and to establish their own oversight structures. Many camps were influenced by and adopted the leadership styles of the ethnic armies that hosted and trained them.

As a young organization of students, the ABSDF Central Leadership had no experience in managing such a large and growing organization.  From 1988 to 1992 there was almost no centralization in terms of military strategy or command, and almost no support from the Headquarters went to the camps in the regions.

This was particularly true of the ABSDF-Northern, which was very far geographically (over 1,000 kilometers) from the HQ. Unlike camps in the Southern part of the country, ABSDF-Northern was also hundreds of miles from any neighboring camps or battalions. Between 1988 and 1992, there was no direct communication system between the HQ and ABSDF-Northern. All messages had to be relayed in person or go via KIA’s radio communication. By 1991, ABSDF-Northern was operating with a great degree of autonomy.

ABSDF central leadership and its ability to control ABSDF-Northern was even further weakened by internal disputes that arose in 1991. Intense internal divisions  at the ABSDF Third Conference resulted in a split that would divide the organization from 1991 until 1996. The impact of the split was most intensely felt in August-October 1991 (during the Third Conference) when power negotiations left ABSDF overall leadership in limbo. While the Conference delegates deliberated, ABSDF- Northern and other camps were given even less attention than usual.  The timing of the split coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the incidents the ABSDF-Northern camp, with the Third Conference starting only a week after the first arrests were made.

Key Findings

While the ABSDF HQ, through its Constitution, sanctioned the use of the death sentence for spies, it only allowed it in cases where the accused were guaranteed rights to due process and right to appeal.

While ABSDF HQ exercised some authority on paper over the ABSDF-Northern, in reality it had little effective control. In the years leading up to the violations (1988-1991) ABSDF was a new organization with little leadership experience. All camps including ABSDF-Northern operated with a high degree of independence. ABSDF-Northern was especially autonomous given its geographical distance from HQ and other camps. The ABSDF leadership crisis further complicated and confused lines of command and authority of HQ over the ABSDF-Northern.

2.2 What the ABSDF Central Leadership knew and when they knew it

According to data gathered by the TJC, the ABSDF leadership learned about the incidents at the Northern Camp during its Third Conference, which was held at the Salween Camp (in Southern Burma near the Thai border) from August 14 – October 25, 1991. The Third Conference was tumultuous and resulted in the split of the ABSDF into factions commanded by Dr. Naing Aung and Moe Thee Zun.  The split dominated the Conference with factions working day and night to campaign for leadership of the ABSDF. It was against this backdrop of intense internal division that news of the events in ABSDF-Northern first trickled in. The news arrived in at least three ways.

The first news came via a telegraph sent by the Kachin Independence Army. Moe Thee Zun, the Chairperson of the ABSDF from 1989-1991, received the message. He could not remember the specific date of the message but the TJC believes that it was in August 1991. He provided the TJC with the following details:

“While in the Third conference, I was informed by Kachin General Zaw Sai and his group about the incident. It was about noon. So I called up the Central Executive Committee emergency meeting. .”

Dr. Naing Aung (former ABSDF Chairperson 1991-1998) was present at the Third Conference and confirmed that Moe Thee Zun had informed delegates about the telegraph he received:

“It was while the Third Conference was being held that these things happened. According to the Conference record, it was held in Salween Camp from August 14 to October 25, 1991. Ko Moe Thee [Zun] reported to the Conference that the ABSDF-Northern had arrested the government spies that included their own Central Committee members. The delegates of the ABSDF-Northern to the conference, including Ko Soe Lin, one of the (ABSDF) delegates, strongly objected it”.

The TJC also heard evidence about another transmission from the ABSDF-Northern camp to the Third Conference. After the formation of the ABSDF (Kachin), Hla Htay, one of the three politburo members, was assigned to go the ABSDF HQ as a representative of the ABSDF (Kachin). He was elected as one of the Central Executive Committee members at the Second  Conference. He attended the Third Conference as a delegate of the ABSDF-Northern. He told the TJC how he was contacted by Myo Win (ABSDF – Northern) over radio communication device on August 19, 1991.

“On my way to the Conference venue, I was told to come to Kachin Hill to receive a radio message. I skipped the conference that day. We talked on the radio. I recorded the whole conversation. It was Major Kyar Phu of KNU taking charge of the radio while Myo Win was on the other side of the radio. He spoke about the arrests, who was arrested, and the numbers of the government spies. We talked about a lot.”

Hla Htay told the TJC that he informed other delegates at the Third Conference but it is unclear whom he spoke with, and what he shared about his conversation with Myo Win.

The third way in which delegates at ABSDF’s Third Conference became aware of the incidents at ABSDF-Northern was through a press conference held by the Burmese government with three detainees who had escaped from the camp. The press conference was held on October 11, 1991, well after the telegraph and radio message sent by the ABSDF-Northern Camp.

Dr. Naing Aung also confirmed to the TJC that delegates were informed by the press conference. He related the following:

“Three members who deserted the ABSDF-Northern held a press conference with the government (SLORC at that time). Some delegates who had listened to the press conference told us that over 40 ABSDF-Northern members had been arrested including Chairperson Htun Aung Kyaw and 5 other Central Committee members of the (ABSDF –Northern), and there were brutal interrogations that resulted in the death of 5 members already.”

Key Findings

The TJC concludes that the ABSDF HQ was informed about events in the ABSDF-Northern Camp via telegraph, radio message, and press conference during its Third Conference. Although the TJC could not confirm the exact dates of the telegraph and radio transmission, it believes that they likely were sent in August 1991. With the press conference confirmed as taking place on October 11, 1991, the TJC believes there is no doubt that ABSDF Central Leadership was aware of events in ABSDF-Northern Camp by mid October 1991.

Given the factionalism and communication difficulties that dominated the Third Conference, the TJC was not able to pinpoint what level of detailed information about the incidents was shared with whom in the ABSDF Central Leadership. Based on the statements of Moe Thee Zun and Dr. Naing Aung, the two highest ABSDF leaders during and after the split, the TJC is confident that ABSDF leadership of the time had knowledge that ABSDF-Northern members had been arrested as spies, tortured, and killed.

The Role of ABSDF HQ in Preventing and Stopping Human Rights Violations in the ABSDF-Northern Camp
In considering the organizational responsibility of the ABSDF HQ, the TJC also looked at what steps it took (or didn’t take) to stop human rights violations at the Northern camp, and to prevent further abuses. It also looked at its role in promoting and/or perpetrating violations. In analyzing this issue, the TJC found that ABSDF HQ responded to events in the Northern Camp in a limited way.

Failure to Discuss/Address ABSDF-Northern Events at ABSDF Third Conference
Despite the fact that key ABSDF leaders and other delegates were aware of what was happening at the ABSDF-Northern Camp, there was little discussion or action taken at the Third Conference. Dr. Naing Aung told the Committee how there was no time to address the issue:

“That was how we got informed or knew; Ko Moe Thee’s report to the conference based on the telegraph and the press conference. However, we didn’t have a moment to discuss that matter in the conference.” According to other accounts, delegates were not sure how to raise the issue or who was responsible, especially after the decision was taken for the ABSDF-Northern Camp to go under the leadership of the faction led by Dr. Naing Aung. Moe Thee Zun explained to the Committee how it was difficult for him to act once he found out that violations were taking place:

“There were not reports of torture when we got informed. A week later, we split into two ABSDFs. And both factions were acknowledged by Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB). The ABSDF-Northern decided to support Dr. Naing Aung group so I had no way to impose my instruction or suggestion on them.”

The one exception to the silence was the sending of an advice-giving message in response to the radio message sent by the ABSDF-Northern Camp during the early days of the Conference. Moe Thee Zun described to the Committee how the message was drawn up after he received the telegraph:

“I called up the Central Executive Committee emergency meeting. The message we gave [to the ABSDF Northern] was ‘do not torture those people under arrest of alleged government spies,’ ‘conduct the interrogation with the alliance’ and ‘if they were the spies, transfer them to Red Cross or NGOs.’ I think that Kyaw Kyaw, Aung Htoo, Mahn Mahn took part in the meeting as much as I can recall.”The TJC was not able to confirm the date that the advice-giving message was sent but believes it was early in August 1991 before the split had taken place at the Third Conference. The TJC heard no evidence that there was any response or follow up to this message.

It was beyond the scope of this report for the TJC to interview a large number of delegates from the Third Conference to determine why the matter was not addressed. While the TJC acknowledges the challenges created by the split, it finds it tragic that ABSDF leaders did not take the matters at the ABSDF-Northern Camp more seriously.  The failure of ABSDF Third Conference leaders to quickly address the situation undoubtedly lead to new and ongoing violations in the ABSDF-Northern Camp.

Sending of Kyaw Kyaw to ABSDF-Northern Camp
With the closure of the Third Conference, a decision was taken by the faction lead by Dr. Naing Aung (which had authority over the ABSDF-Northern Camp) to send Kyaw Kyaw, one of the three representatives of the ABSDF-Northern at the ABSDF HQ at the time, back to the Northern Camp. Dr. Naing Aung described the action to the Committee in this way:

“We assigned Kyaw Kyaw to go back to the Northern in January (1992) and gave him a letter for them in which we urged them to report the findings as soon as possible, to take no further action without consent of the Central Committee as a whole, and make direct communication with the HQ. It was in January 1992.”

KyawKyaw Kyaw returned to the ABSDF-Northern in early 1992 and was able to meet with Northern leaders and even some detainees. He gave the TJC the following account.

“It took me a month to reach the ABSDF-Northern camp. I arrived there at early 1992. I myself met and had a talk with Htun Aung Kyaw and also with Samar Nyi Nyi. We talked. I also met some others who were included in the group of 15 [executed on February 12]. My idea was we want to transfer all of them to ICRC but they [ICRC] didn’t seem to accept them.”

Ultimately Kyaw Kyaw was not able to persuade ABSDF-Northern to use this option. He acknowledged to the TJC that he was part of the ABSDF-Northern Committee that decided to sentence 15 to death on February 12, 1992.

The TJC was not able to ascertain if there was any communication between Kyaw Kyaw and ABSDF HQ after his return to the ABSDF-Northern camp. There is no evidence that ABSDF HQ attempted to make contact with Kyaw Kyaw or follow up with him about his mission.  According to Dr. Naing Aung, the ABSDF leadership did not hear anything until the February 12 executions were published in Thai media. He told the TJC:

“Since then on (after Kyaw Kyaw returned to the North), we received or heard nothing. Then the news report by Yindee in The Nation newspaper appeared on February 29, 1992. We knew only when she told about the Feb 12 event.”

It appears to the TJC that Kyaw Kyaw acted on his own upon returning to the Northern Camp. While the TJC finds that sending Kyaw Kyaw was a positive step by the ABSDF HQ, it ultimately had no effect on preventing the executions or stopping ongoing detentions and violations.

Statements Made by the ABSDF HQ following the February 12, 1992 Executions
After the February 12, 1992 killings, both ABSDF factions released statements. A total of four statements were released:
  • Press Release “According to the reports attached with documentary evidences from the Northern Division (ABSDF), 15 spies of SLORC were executed” by ABSDF Joint General Secretary 1 U Aung Htoo (signed by Aung Htoo) – 1 March 1992
  • ABSDF Statement on the Execution of 15 Alleged SLORC Spies (signed by Chairman Moe Thee Zun of the ABSDF Central Leading Committee) – 8 March 1992
  • Declaration of the ABSDF (signed by ABSDF Central Committee members) – 17 March 1992
  • Press Release by the Chairman of the ABSDF concerning with the spies those arrested in Northern ABSDF (signed by Dr. Naing Aung) – 31 May 1992
The common stand of all four statements was a call for the killings to stop. The TJC believes that this had a positive effect on preventing further executions in the camp.

In all four statements ABSDF leadership also distanced themselves from the decision to execute the detainees, emphasizing that ABSDF-Northern acted alone. Dr. Naing Aung highlighted this in is description to the TJC of Aung Htoo’s statement.

“Aung Htoo was taking In Charge in Bangkok at that time. He released a statement by the authority of the Foreign Affairs Department while the Central Committee (HQ) asked them [ABSDF-Northern] via KIO radio communication about the incident and released a statement on March 17. It said the HQ did not have knowledge of what happened due to the far distance and requested the international community to help solve this case.” Tragically however, the Truth and Justice Committee has found that the statements by Chairperson Dr. Naing Aung (31 May 1992) and Joint General Secretary 1 Aung Htoo justified the February 12 execution as “enemy spies killings.”

Dr. Naing Aung’s press release carried specific weight because it was issued after his visit to the ABSDF-Northern Camp. It states:

“I have no more dispute about the righteousness to execute 15 spies. However, I myself, on be half of the Central Committee, have the responsibilities for that even though there was no participation by the Central Committee on the decision process.”

As a result, although both statements also make it clear that ABSDF-Northern acted on its own without consulting ABSDF leadership, the tone of these messages still sent a signal that the executions were in some way justified by the top levels of ABSDF leadership.

Visit of ABSDF Chairperson Dr. Naing Aung to ABSDF-Northern Camp
In the wake of the executions Chairperson Dr. Naing Aung went to the ABSDF-Northern camp. According to Dr. Naing Aung’s account he arrived at the camp on April 9, 1992 – almost two months after the executions had taken place. Although the TJC was not able to establish the full details of Dr. Naing Aung’s visit, it believes that he had extensive meetings with ABDF-Northern leadership and some detainees.

Dr, Naing Aung provided details of the trip to the TJC, stating:

“I contacted the ABSDF Northern to see if I could come. I told them I would come myself. So I went there. I arrived at the Northern camp after the February 12 event. I traveled with Major Sai Linn and U Sai Tun.“My plan was to understand what was going on, to deter the same thing from happening again, and to build a better communication system and understanding. I met all the people but Myo Win. I mainly told them to remove the shackles [of detainees] and not to do any more (killings). I also urged them to provide food and medical care; and they said they would.  It was the first time I met the Northern leaders. It was too early for me to guarantee [safety] for all the prisoners; the Northern leaders had all the authority in their hands.”

“When I arrived at the Northern camp, they remained proud of what they had done or could discover the enemy spies. They thought they were right. I listened to what they said and urged them stop doing these things.”

Survivors who spoke with the TJC explained how they were greatly disappointed and angered by Dr. Naing Aung’s visit. Many had high expectations that he would take a strong stand and end the crisis in the camp. Ohn Kyaine said the following about Dr. Naing Aung’s visit:

“We all relied on him hen he arrived at the camp. We hoped that because he is the Chairperson that he would take responsibility and solve it; but it was wrong.”Nang Saw echoed Ohn Kyaine’s sentiments:

“In my mind, I hoped that the southern ABSDF comrades would prevent the incidents but they did not.”

According to survivors, Dr. Aung Naing met with some detainees during his visit. Multiple survivors told the TJC how Dr. Naing Aung specifically asked detainees from the 501 Battalion if they were spies. The TJC also heard allegations that Dr. Naing Aung beat detainees during his visit, including slapping at least one detainee on the ear.

Thein Tun, a medic from Battalion (501) and claimed that he was slapped by Dr. Naing Aung. He gave this account to the TJC:“Dr. Naing Aung questioned us about who were belonged to 501.  Than Zaw and Aung Soe Myint (members of the Intelligence Unit of the ABSDF-Northern) were with him at my turn. ‘Are you a spy?,’ he asked. I told him that, ‘you can ask my brother, Dr. Thaung Tun. He can corroborate for you. It is clear. ‘ Then he said, ‘ how dare you’   and slapped me with his shoe. My ear was bleeding. I received the treatment when I got back to Rangoon.”

Dr. Naing Aung responded to that statement in two separate interviews with the TJC.

“ I patted his shoulder not his head. I do not have violent mind to make (someone) bleed.”

Response of the ABSDF Leadership 1992-2015
In the decades since the incidents of the ABSDF Northern Camp, the ABSDF as an organization has been largely silent on what took place. Many of those involved in the incidents in the ABSDF-Northern Camp remain active members of the ABSDF while others (notably Dr. Naing Aung) have left the organization. The ABSDF has never removed anyone from office for his or her roles in what took place. At the same time the ABSDF has not made any statements or offered any material support to individuals facing potential law suits or sanctions because of their alleged role in violations committed while serving in the ABSDF.

In more recent years the ABSDF has begun to take steps to address the past. In 2013, the ABSDF issued an apology on behalf of the organization.

In 2012, the ABSDF leadership agreed to allow the formation of the Truth and Justice Committee to look into the events more closely. The TJC hopes that this report is part of ongoing ABSDF efforts to acknowledge what happened and address violations.

Conclusion

The TJC is confident that the ABSDF Central Leadership was informed about events in the ABSDF-Northern camp at the early stage of the arrests before it intensified. It was informed during the Third Conference.  It is also clear that they failed or did not have interests to take adequate measures to prevent or stop the whole course of the arrests taking place in the ABSDF – Northern. The TJC believes that the incidents might have been prevented if the ABSDF leaders of the Third Conference paid enough attention to the message they had received.

The TJC acknowledges, however, some of the efforts made during and after the Third Conference. This includes  the sending of a message to the ABSDF – Northern, assigning one of the delegates (Kyaw Kyaw)to return and access the ground situation, and Dr. Naing Aung’s visit to the ABSDF – Northern camp after the split.

The TJC is confident to say that the ABSDF – Northern acted alone in making decisions of making arrests, interrogations including the February  12 executions, given the interviewed data, without getting consent or approval from the ABSDF – HQ (Dr. Naing Aung faction). However, the media release by Secretary 1 Aung Htoo and Dr. Naing Aung’s statement in his capacity as Chairperson justified the executions of 15 ABSDF members on February 12, 1992 under the allegation of “the government spies” without corroboration. These statements completely failed to address the allegations of torture and the killings that took place during interrogations or to help to stop.

Individual Responsibility
The Truth and Justice Committee is not a legal entity and does not have the mandate or power to identify and assign individual responsibility for crimes and violations that took place within the ABSDF-Northern camp in 1991-92. Only a court has the power to do so. Furthermore, although the TJC heard many allegations, it did not conduct investigations into individuals reportedly involved in human rights violations.

Yet the TJC acknowledges that individual responsibility is an important part of dealing with the past. Organizations are made up of individuals that must reflect and account for their role in past violations.

The TJC has chosen to publish a list of names of people involved in key ABSDF leadership structures during the incidents of 1991-1992 that were named in the Organization Responsibility section of this report. It does so to prompt a fuller discussion around accountability and promote future efforts to deal with the past.

The TJC has compiled these lists using information given in interviews and from official ABSDF documents. The TJC has done its best to verify these lists but acknowledges that there may be some inconsistencies and omissions.

ABSDF-Northern Central Committee
The TJC acknowledges that membership of the Central Committee changed during 1991-1992 when original members were arrested and replaced. An asterisk * next to a name denotes that that person was arrested and became a victim/survivor during 1991-92. Names in italics are believed to have been part of the meeting that made the decision to execute 15 ABSDF members on February 12, 1992.

  1. Ar Seit /Tin Maung Aye (Information Department, killed August 1991) *
  2. Aung Gyi (Fundraising Department, currently working with a Shan ethnic armed group.)
  3. Aung Swe Oo (Battalion Commander)
  4. Htun Aung Kyaw (Chairperson, executed February 12, 1992) *
  5. Kyaw Kyaw (Vice-Chairperson 2; now expelled by the ABSDF for alleged involvement in establishing a parallel organization)
  6. Kyaw Kyaw Ohn (Sagaing Regional in Charge, killed) *
  7. La Seng (Joint Secretary 2; currently Chairperson of the ABSDF [Northern] Working Group)
  8. Myint Kyaw (Auditing Department)
  9. Myo Win (Joint General Secretary -1 and  Vice Chief of Staff, died in action, 1992)
  10. Nay Dun (Fundraising Department, committed suicide while the TJC was negotiating an interview time with him, 2013)
  11. Nyi Nyi Kyaw (Bamaw Regional in Charge, arrested and tortured, September 1991) *
  12. Ronald Aung Naing (Chairperson and General Secretary)
  13. Sein Aye (Moenyin Regional in Charge)
  14. Soe Linn (Political and Organizing Department, arrested and tortured September 1991) *
  15. Than Chaung (Vice Chairperson-1 and Chief of Staff, currently in Tharrawaddy Prison)
  16. Than Lwin (Vice Chairperson -3)
  17. U Sein (Judicial Department, died in detention October 1991) *
  18. Yan Naing Soe (Health Department)
  19. Yeh Linn Aung (Shwe Ku Regional In Charge, arrested and tortured, September 1991) *
ABSDF-Northern Intelligence Unit
  1. Aung Soe Myint (Lance Corporal)
  2. Kyaw Htin Oo (Lance Corporal, deceased)
  3. Po Naung (member)
  4. Than Zaw (Sergeant in Charge, surrendered to the government but couldn’t find his whereabouts)
  5. Thet Lin (member)
  6. Zaw Zaw Min (Lance Corporal, surrendered to the government but couldn’t find his whereabouts)

ABSDF HQ Central Leadership 1991-1992 (Dr. Naing Aung faction)
  1. Dr. Naing Aung (Chairperson)

ABSDF HQ Central Leadership 1991-1992 (Moe Thee Zun faction)
  1. Moe Thee Zun (Chairperson)

Reflections on Individual Accountability

During the course of its work the TJC asked those who had witnessed or were somehow involved in violations how they felt about their role in what took place. Some were hesitant to speak on a personal level but many claimed some sort of responsibility.

While one former ABSDF-Northern Central Committee member acknowledged his role in decision-making, he did not feel responsible for the executions. La Seng told the Committee:

“I never chopped any prisoner with a sword. I have a clear conscience. Clearly, Myo Win did it all by himself. He did all claiming he took all the responsibility.”

Some felt that organizational accountability was the priority. As Dr. Naing Aung told the TJC:

“Mainly, the thing I want to highlight is if there were human rights violations involved, we have to apologize whether or not right or wrong of what we did. I myself extended my apologies in the press conference and in the statement. While I have never done for personal apology, I apologized organizationally.”

Similarly Aung Swe Oo also focused on the responsibility of the ABSDF:

“It was the Student Army before, and now still it is that I see. Some of the former leaders have already passed away but some still are alive. Some remain in prison while some are taking leadership roles in the organization. We all are accountable to it, including myself. As long as the Student Army exists, we are all accountable. I wouldn’t say it has nothing to do with m;,  it is concerned with everyone.”

While others acknowledged their own role they also felt that the Burmese government carried greater responsibility. La Seng told the TJC:

“Of course, as I was one of leaders, I am also accountable for what had happened. They (survivors) are also accountable. Today, what I see is their (the government) intelligence is the most responsible.”

Pouk Kway had a similar view:

“We got involved and we should not deny it. We know that we have to deal with it someday. Everyone thinks that we are responsible and all those who got involved in it are. And the government is also responsible for it.”

Others acknowledged their role in the context of the ABSDF-Northern, speaking about their lack of human rights knowledge and lack of understanding of what was happening. Ronald Aung Naing told the TJC:

“Speaking overall, we couldn’t tackle the whole situation very well. There may have been many people who did not deserve to suffer. Human rights violation occurred. For that, I am sorry. The worst thing was that the ABSDF-Northern did not have any knowledge about human rights. The first accountable entity is the government while the ABSDF is the second one. Being a leader, I am sorry and I apologize to those who did not deserve to suffer all those things.”

Sein Aye also reflected on his role as part of the ABSDF-Northern:

“It was the decision of the Central Committee [of the ABSDF–Northern]. Am I responsible? Yes, I am because I had the responsibility. Things happened. We did what we believed in. We have to deal with the legacy – good or bad. It doesn’t matter how much we knew or we didn’t. Of course we did not know a lot of things during the event. But we are accountable for it.” 

One former ABSDF-Northern member acknowledged the need for ongoing discussion around accountability. Min Htay told the Committee:

“We can’t change this incident but we have to try not to let it happen again. This is the process that we have to deal with when seeking justice during the transitional period. During that time, everyone involved should take responsibility. No one should deny his or her involvement. As far as I know that government is also responsible, so are the people who got involved. So there should be some ways to have three-party initiatives [to address the past].”