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Launch of Karen rights report quashed by Thai authorities

Karen IDPs seek safety in the forest. (Photo: Brennan O'Connor)

The launch of a report by a Karen human rights organisation critical of the Burmese military’s conduct was blocked in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Wednesday after two successive venues declined to host the event, citing pressure from local authorities.

The Karen Peace Support Network was due to launch “The Nightmare Returns,” a 20-page report detailing human rights violations and increased military activity in Karen National Union (KNU) territory over recent weeks.

According to a spokesperson for the group, Chiang Mai University backed out yesterday evening, saying it had been asked to “reconsider” by the Royal Thai Police.

“CMU got a call from the [Thai authorities] but I think it was the Burmese authorities, the Burmese military, that pressured them,” the spokesperson, Naw Hsa Moo, said on the phone from Chiang Mai.

Reacting to the news, KPSN rescheduled the launch to a venue nearby, but according to Naw Hsa Moo, police insisted the group abandon the event entirely.

“The Thai police came and told the people that we cannot do it because they got pressure from the Burmese government,” she added.

Thai authorities did not provide a reason for the event’s cancellation.

Despite the setback, KPSN released its report detailing a damning list of examples that indicate the Burma Army is not fulfilling its obligations under both a 2012 bilateral ceasefire between the former government and the KNU and the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

The report points to a ramping up of military activity in Mutraw district, an area that KPSN says has enjoyed relative peace since the 2012 and 2015 accords.

According to the group, more than 1,500 Burma Army troops acting on orders from the military’s Southern Command have move into KNU territory, resulting in clashes with soldiers from the 5th Brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army, the KNU’s armed wing. The human rights group says more than 2,400 villagers have since been displaced, and that the military has “indiscriminately targeted civilians.”

KPSN and IDPs featured in the accompanying documentary say the Burma Army is violating the bilateral agreement that forbids either side from expanding territory or the presence of troops.

Tensions between the recently encamped military and local villagers have already turned deadly. Earlier this month, community leader Saw O Moo was shot dead by troops after returning from a meeting to coordinate humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The KPSN report comes as the government struggles to convene the third iteration of the so-called “21st-Century Panglong Conference,” State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s peacemaking forum named in honour of her father’s landmark 1947 Panglong Agreement.

Already beset by delays but now scheduled for May, the upcoming round is expected to focus heavily on federalism for the country’s states and regions.

For its part, the KNU is one of the most influential ethnic armed groups that is part of the formal Panglong peace process, as one of 10 NCA signatories. Its entry “into the fold” — in parlance long used by the Burmese government to indicate active participation in various peace initiatives over the years — was seen as a major achievement for former President Thein Sein.

But KPSN members say the move to block the event in Chiang Mai tells a different story, and Naw Hsa Moo added that the organisation was surprised by the move to shut it down.

“Yes, I am surprised! If they really mean peace, or not? They always talk about peace, and then this,” she said.