UN alarmed by abuse of civilians in Myanmar conflict

The United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern Thursday about escalating human rights abuses after reports this week that a group opposed to the country’s ruling military may have executed 25 civilians it captured and that government security forces had burned down a village.

The struggle between the military regime that took power in February after ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and those opposing it has sharpened in recent months.

Elements of what had initially been a nonviolent civil disobedience movement against the takeover evolved into a fledgling armed resistance force in response to harsh repression from police and soldiers who killed hundreds of peaceful protesters and bystanders.

The statement by the U.N. office cited abuses by both sides, calling on “all actors in the current crisis to ensure that international human rights norms and standards are respected.”

“This includes upholding the obligation to minimize collateral harm to civilians and to civilian infrastructure, and prohibiting the application of collective punishments against communities, families or individuals,” the U.N. office said.

The statement noted the discovery of two mass graves in the eastern state of Kayin, also called Karen, containing the human remains of 25 people “who had reportedly been detained on 31 May by the Karen National Defense Organization,” or KNDO.

The KNDO is one of the fighting forces of the Karen National Union, the political organization of the Karen ethnic minority that has been fighting for decades for more autonomy from the central government.

The junta said Sunday that the 25 bodies were those of road construction workers who were detained and killed by the KNDO.

In response, KNDO spokesman Wah Nay Nu was quoted by The Irrawaddy, an independent online news service, as saying the men were not civilians but government military personnel who were spying. Some were shot dead by KNDO forces but others were killed by shelling from government forces, he said.

On Wednesday, however, the Karen National Union issued a statement saying it would form a team to investigate the incident, stating that the group “follows the Geneva Convention which does not condone the killing of civilians during armed conflict.”

The statement added that action could be taken to prosecute any wrongdoing according to relevant laws, without providing specifics.

The U.N. statement called for "those responsible for human rights violations to be held accountable, including the perpetrators and their chain of command.”

Tuesday’s burning of Kinma village in the Magway Region of central Myanmar was also a matter of dispute.

A resident of the village confirmed to The Associated Press accounts in independent media that government troops were responsible for burning down most of the village’s roughly 250 houses, and that an elderly couple unable or unwilling to flee with the rest of the villagers were believed to have perished in the blaze. The villager spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the government.

Government-controlled media, however, reported that “terrorists” were responsible for the conflagration, charging that they had burned down the home of someone unsympathetic to their cause, and that the wind had then spread the fire.

The government and its opponents each refer to the other side as “terrorists.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “is deeply concerned and disturbed” by the reports of government forces burning down villages in Kinma, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

This "reminds us of the systematic burning of villages in North Rakhime state, which we saw in the past and which led to the dramatic exodus of the Rohingya people,” Dujarric said.

“The Secretary-General continues to strongly condemn the continued repression by the security forces against civilians across the country, which again is having major regional ramifications and requires a unified international response,” Dujarric said.

Noting the discovery of the two mass graves, Dujarric said the United Nations calls on all parties to ensure that international human rights standards are respected including minimizing harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure and prohibiting collective punishment against communities, families or individuals.