[Image under Creative Commons, courtesy of EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection]
The Burma government denied airstrikes against civilians in a regional capital—until citizen video helped force their confession. This is how it happened.
By Jiahui Chen.
After nearly two years of war, the Kachins in Myanmar are still waiting for a cease-fire that President Thein Sein has repeatedly promised. The conflict between the Burmese state and the Kachin people has caused hundreds of deaths and displaced tens of thousands of people, according to reports. Despite the Burmese government’s denial of war crimes, citizens’ videos have documented these atrocities and pushed the government to acknowledge its attacks.
The Kachin are a minority ethnic group living in the mountainous northern reaches of Burma. In June 2011, fighting shattered a 17-year ceasefire in this long-simmering fight for independence. Both sides have been accused of grave human rights violations—including the use of land mines, conscription of child soldiers, torture, and systematic rape.
But on Dec. 28, 2012, everything escalated: activists and rebel forces reported the use of jet fighters by government forces, and videos started to appear. On Jan 14th, the Kachin Independence Army reported two artillery strikes in the Kachin capital of Laiza, in which government attacks killed three civilians and severely injured four others. This video, taken by a citizen journalist, shows what happened:
At the beginning of the footage, a child and two injured women are carried out by KIA soldiers; they are followed by others, mostly women and children, running out of the village. At 1.32, we hear an incoming projectile and an explosion. This attack is believed to be the second of two 105mm artillery rounds that landed approximately 400 meters from the center of Laiza city. Another severely injured man is seen bleeding on the ground at 2.22; he is soon moved to a truck. Throughout, we see pandemonium on the streets, with people rushing in the same direction with luggage. At 2.27, we hear what sounds like sobbing.
The government roundly denied the shelling, and stated that citizens were neither targeted nor caught in the crossfire. But the next video tells a different story.
This 2-minute citizen video, obtained by the Irrawaddy Publishing Group. sheds light on three important facts: heavy crossfire between KIA and Burmese army, aerial bombardment on the residential area by the Burmese army, and village houses in Kachin burnt down by the Burmese army.
Helicopters and jets are seen flying overhead, and striking at 0.32, 0.36, 1.01 and 1.17. So yes, there were multiple airstrikes, despite government claims. This footage was taken close to the center of Laiza, where 24,000 internally displaced people were living. The fighting is heavy—we see crossfire throughout the video—so it’s clear that, at the very least, the government attack put them in grave danger. Moreover, houses in the village are seen being burnt down at 1.07 and 1.36. In December 2011, President Thein Sein ostensibly ordered the army not to act unless in self-defense. From this video, we can see how poorly equipped and worn out the KIA appears, while the Burmese army is launching rockets and dispatching air force. None of these indicate that the Burmese army is merely carrying out self-defense.
International humanitarian law explicitly prohibits civilian-targeted attacks and attacks directed at a specific military objective and thus put civilians at risk. Therefore, even though Laiza is the administrative center of KIA, aerial bombardment of a populated town because of the presence of a military target is still considered indiscriminate and illegal.
So what have these videos achieved? They were broadcast on several news outlets and widely spread. Despite President Thein Sein’s initial adamant denial, the government backtracked and admitted the attack. This confession has granted international organizations better opportunities to request access to the war zone and to provide aid for the internally displaced population. President Thein Sein publicly announced a cease-fire intention a week after these airstrikes—but the military’s attacks have continued.
The full video playlist, Kachin vs Burmese army: A Ceasefire that Never Came features other footage, including a music video made by the Kachins and testimonies of IDPs and rape survivors, as well as worldwide protests against the conflict. Perhaps, through the combination of video, advocacy, and action, we can shift the momentum of this conflict toward peace.
Jiahui Chen is a graduate student in the Politics program at New York University. She has interned with the Human Rights Channel for the past three months.