HUMAN Rights Watch (HRW) and Fortify Rights yesterday called on the government of Burma (Myanmar) to launch an immediate investigation into the whereabouts of two Kachin Baptist Church leaders who disappeared on Dec 24.
The rights groups said the two men were last seen near a military outpost in Shan State’s Mong Koe township.
“The apparent enforced disappearance of these two Christian leaders has created a climate of fear and terror in Northern Shan State,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights.
“The government should urgently investigate and report on this case and ensure protection for those with information.”
— Matthew Smith (@matthewfsmith) January 17, 2017
Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, and Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 65, went missing after assisting journalists who were reporting on military abuses in the state. Their fate and whereabouts remains unknown with HRW fearing that they may have been victim to enforced disappearance and the violation of various rights protected under international law.
Despite repeated enquiries to the local Myo Ma police station in Muse Township by the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), the religious group in which both men were working, no information on the couple’s whereabouts has come to light.
The pair were reported missing by family members on Jan 3, thirteen days after they were last seen traveling by motorbike towards Byuha Gon base, where Burmese Army Battalions Nos. 99 and 55 are located.
It is believed that, on the evening of Dec 24, Langjaw Gam Seng received a phone call from a person claiming to be a member of the Burmese military. The caller reportedly requested that both Langjaw Gam Seng and his cousin Dumdaw Nawng Lat go to the Byuha Gon military base in Northern Shan State’s Mong Ko town under the guise of assisting in the release of civilians detained on the base.
However the military has since denied detaining the men and the government is claiming that they were taken by the Kachin Independence Army, not the military.
The Northern Shan state where the two were working at the time of their disappearance has experienced clashes recently between the Burmese military and the Brotherhood of the Northern Alliance (BNA), a coalition of four ethnic armed groups.
Allegations of airstrikes carried out by the Burmese military surfaced in November and December 2016. They are purported to have destroyed civilian structures including the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Mong Ko; the destruction of which was recorded by one of the journalists that Gam Seng and Nwang Lat were helping.
The journalist was warned by the township administrator not to publish the evidence, however, the photographs appeared online several days later.
Despite the Burmese military publicly denying the allegations of airstrikes on Dec 18, it later came to light that the military had written to Catholic Bishop Philip Za Hawng on Dec 8 accepting responsibility and agreeing to rebuild the church.
It is in this environment of allegations and uncertainty in which the two went missing.
For many years, allegations have been brought against the Burmese military for their misconduct in the Northern Shan and Kachin States. Civil society organizations have documented unlawful killings, torture, rape, forced labour, and other abuses committed against civilians in the region.
Both Fortify Rights and HRW have collected evidence of wrongdoing in the area including the displacement of tens of thousands of people and the destruction of homes, and the systematic use of torture and other degrading treatment or punishment of more than sixty civilians by government forces during fighting in northern Burma from June 2011 to April 2014
Despite these widespread allegations, Yanghee Lee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, was recently denied access by the government to Shan State during her 12-day monitoring mission to the country.
“Perpetrators of grievous abuses in Kachin and Shan States need to be brought to justice,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said. “Atrocities won’t stop so long as the military can commit them against civilians with impunity.”