Bangkok: Myanmar soldiers are committing serious human rights abuses including extra-judicial killing and rape in a campaign against guerrillas in the north of the country despite reforms aimed at ending harsh military rule, a relief group said on Monday.
The abuses could amount to war crimes and Hillary Clinton should bring up the issue in talks this week when she becomes the first US secretary of state to visit Myanmar in five decades, the group Partners Relief and Development said.
Representatives of the aid group visited Kachin state in the far north of Myanmar, also known as Burma, where in June fighting broke out when a 17-year-old ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) guerrilla group broke down.
"While the political situation in lowland Burma is being interpreted as a major breakthrough, the situation for millions in the ethnic areas is worse than it`s been in two decades," the group`s co-founder, Oddny Gumaer, told a news conference in Bangkok.
"I would want Hillary Clinton to bring this up."
Ethnic minority guerrillas have been fighting for self-rule in Myanmar since shortly after independence from Britain in 1948. For decades, the military justified its tight grip on power by citing the fear the country might break apart.
The military officially stepped back from its leadership role after an election a year ago. A civilian government which took over in March, though dominated by retired military men, has introduced a string of reforms.
Hillary`s three-day visit beginning Wednesday marks international recognition of the changes by a long-isolated country keen to reduce reliance on China and end Western sanctions imposed because of rights abuses and suppression of democracy.
But a member of the aid group who made an unofficial fact-finding visit to Kachin state last month said there was no sign of reform in the conflict zone, where about 30,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.
"The situation is dire and they are in need of immediate assistance," group member Bryan Erikson told the news conference, referring to civilians in the area.
"There`s very little sign of improvement and the expectation of future hostility is high," said Erikson, the author of a report on the situation in the area drawn from interviews with at least 200 people affected by the conflict.
Hkawng Seng Pan of the Thailand-based Kachin Women`s Association said her group had evidence of 32 cases of rape by government soldiers in the recent conflict and some of the victims had been killed.
"When we say `reform in Burma`, or `reconciliation in Burma`, we cannot separate democracy from ethnic rights," she said.
The Myanmar Army dismisses accusations of rape and other human rights abuses by its soldiers.
The civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, says it wants to end the country`s minority conflicts and has reached out to guerrilla factions, including the KIO.
A KIO representative, James Lum Dau, said more talks were due Tuesday in a Chinese border town. He said the Myanmar Army should pull out of the Kachin areas they had moved into since the ceasefire broke down in June.
"Then automatically there will be a ceasefire then we can talk about politics," Lum Dau said.
About a third of Myanmar`s estimated 50 million people are members of ethnic minorities, such as the Kachin, who have traditionally inhabited the hills above the central Irrawaddy river basin.
Many Kachin converted to Christianity during colonial rule and Kachin fighters helped British and US forces fighting the Japanese Army during the Second World War.
The Kachin guerrilla force went to war against the central government demanding autonomy soon after the military seized power in an 1962 coup. The ceasefire broke down this year after the Army ordered the KIO, and other minority forces, to fold their men into a government border security force.