My Black Friday

With the next Union Peace Conference to begin in the coming weeks, an image of a grief-stricken grandmother provokes a reflection on the innocent civilian victims of decades of conflict among armed organisations in Myanmar.


I’M NOT sure why Westerners regard Friday the 13th as an unlucky day, but Friday the 13th of January was certainly a bad day for me.

I was distressed by an image I saw on Facebook of an elderly woman hugging the body of an innocent child killed when an artillery shell exploded near him the previous afternoon at Hochuang village in Namhsan Township, one of two townships that comprise the Palaung Self-Administered Zone in northern Shan State.

The child was her grandson, and was one of two people killed by the shellburst, which also left eight people injured. I was so upset by the image that I called some contacts in the township to find out what had happened.

I learned that the villagers were happily preparing for a celebration of some kind when the shell slammed into their midst. They were traumatised by the attack. The Facebook image showed that the grief-stricken grandmother had placed her grandson’s kindergarten textbook on his lifeless chest. Next to his body she had placed a ball he liked to play with.

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This sad story touched me deeply. It also made me angry about the civilian victims of fighting among ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw.

I read in a state-run newspaper that the attack was blamed on the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Palaung State Liberation Front, which has been in active conflict with the Tatmadaw in recent years. In a post on its Facebook page, the TNLA denied the accusation and said the Tatmadaw was responsible for the incident.

The two armed organisations seemed to be more interested in smearing each other than in trying to determine who was responsible for the incident. Meanwhile the killing of innocent people continues in the civil war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and disrupted the lives of thousands of others since it began after independence nearly 70 years ago.

The telecommunications age has enabled armed groups to use their versions of events as a weapon to spread accusations in the mass media aimed at misleading the public and fomenting hate against their rivals.

When two Kachin women teachers were raped and murdered at Kawng Hka village in northern Shan in January 2015 armed organisations blamed each other for their deaths.

The women, aged 20 and 21, were serving as volunteer teachers for the Kachin Baptist Convention. No one has ever been arrested in connection with their deaths.

Soldiers were camped in the village when the incident occurred but the Tatmadaw denied involvement. The Defence Ministry warned that legal action would be taken against anyone who alleged that soldiers were involved in killing the women, whose bodies had been mutilated.

Supporters of the Tatmadaw said on social media that the Kachin Independence Army was responsible for killing the women, a claim it denied. Armed groups that supported the Tatmadaw and other groups that were difficult to identify had also been operating in the area.

I travelled to Kawng Hka village a few days after the killings where there was much anger about the deaths. Gruesome photos of their dead bodies were stuck onto the walls of many buildings around the village, to show the severity of the murders.

Although those responsible for killing the women may never be known, armed organisations have used their deaths as a tool to smear each other.

Almost exactly two years after the women’s deaths, a teacher was found dead in Kachin State’s Hpakant Township on January 18 soon after being abducted by three armed men from the school where he worked.

Media reports said the 27-year-old teacher, a Tai-Leng, or “Red Shan”, had struck some Kachin students as punishment for being absent from school on January 10 to attend celebrations marking Kachin State Day. There was speculation that the students’ parents had complained to the KIA but it has denied having anything to do with the teacher’s death, which came less than 24 hours after another Tai-Leng man was shot dead by unknown assailants near his home in Hpakant Township.

DVB reported that the 40-year-old man was a member of the Tai-Leng Nationalities Development Party. It said members of the Tai-Leng community in Hpakant had often accused the KIA of committing human rights abuses against the Red Shan.

“Some people in the area who despise the KIA always point the finger at us whenever there is a murder in the area, with the intention of creating hostilities between us and government forces,” KIA Major Tang Seng told DVB.

The civil war in Myanmar is the world’s longest. It involves dozens of armed groups that have been fighting the government, and sometimes each other, for decades. Civilians have often been victims of the fighting.

Armed groups use the mass media to try and create the impression that rival groups are responsible for the worst human rights abuses. As they point the finger of blame to other groups, innocent civilians continue to suffer and die.

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