A shocking new report by Amnesty International into ongoing human rights violations in Kachin State and northern Shan State in Burma has prompted Burma Campaign UK to raise further questions about the decision of the British government to provide free training to the Burmese Army.
The report, "All the civilians suffer", describes many of the human rights violations as war crimes. The vast majority of them are committed by the Burmese Army.
They include 25 instances of the Burmese Army executing civilians, including one case where 18 men were executed and left in a mass grave. Another example cited was the death of an eight or nine-year-old child, killed when the Burmese Army fired mortar bombs at a village. Villagers are used as slave labour to carry equipment for soldiers, and face regular beatings. In one example they had their faces slashed with a shaving blade.
The 51 page report, based on 140 interviews, details numerous case studies of how the Burmese Army has been either deliberately targeting civilians, or taken no effort to ensure the safety of civilians in conflict areas, in violation of international law.
The cases documented have largely taken place in the past year, three years after the British government first announced it would provide free training to the Burmese Army. Facing criticism for its decision, the British government initially claimed the training related to human rights, but was later forced to admit that only one hour in the sixty hour training course covered human rights, and no reference to human rights violations by the Burmese Army are made in the training. The government now says the training is to 'professionalise' the Burmese Army and that no direct combat training is involved. The last thing ethnic civilians need is a more professional Burmese Army attacking their villages.
The new evidence of human rights violations by the Burmese Army comes just three months after the United Nations decided to launch an investigation into human rights violations by the Burmese Army in Rakhine State and Kachin and Shan States.
The United Nations has already documented human rights violations against the Rohingya ethnic group which could amount to crimes against humanity. These include soldiers arbitrarily executing civilians, stamping on a baby as it was born, the mass use of rape, and slitting the throat of a baby as it cried out to be fed while Burmese Army soldiers gang-raped its mother.
The British government is spending £305,499 a year training the Burmese Army. No specific goals exist for what the training is supposed to achieve, and no evaluation of the spending has been carried out. No questions are asked about the past records of the soldiers Britain trains, and no follow up done to see if soldiers trained by Britain were involved in recent military offensives against the Shan, Kachin, Rohingya and other ethnic groups.
If the original false claims by the British government that the training was about human rights were genuine, then training the Burmese Army has been a spectacular failure. Human rights violations by the Burmese Army have increased significantly in the past year.
Perhaps because they are reluctant to admit they made a mistake, the British government are doggedly sticking to the training programme. Worse, other European countries are joining them, with Germany and Austria also recently offering to train the Burmese Army. It is possible that the real reason for the training is commercial. On his now regular trips to Europe, the head of the Burmese Army, Min Aung Hlaing, has been given factory tours of arms manufacturers and military suppliers, and presented with gifts and lavish dinners. Although there is officially an arms embargo in place, some European companies are already supplying the Burmese military with equipment.
The decision to train and trade with the Burmese military is a spectacular failure of morality, but also much more than that. It sends a signal to Min Aung Hlaing and his military that they can continue to act with impunity. No matter what they do, no matter how horrific the human rights violations they commit, instead of facing consequences, they are embraced even more warmly. With the things Min Aung Hlaing has been responsible for, he should be a pariah, not a dinner guest.
Perhaps when the UN Fact Finding Mission issues its report next March, the British government and others will be shamed into action. Ending the free training programmes should be just one small part of a wide range of measures that pressure the military to end its violations of international law. In the meantime, it seems that British taxpayers' money will keep being spent on training war criminals.