“The atrocities committed against the Kachin by the Burma Army may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity” says Arizona congressman Trent Franks, co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Caucus. The conservative Republican lawmaker's comments appeared in an op-ed published by the Washington Times newspaper on Monday.
Franks's article highlighting the ongoing conflict in Kachin state coincided with US President Barack Obama's historic visit to Burma this week. “The plight of the Kachin is often overlooked by the international community, and humanitarian conditions are seriously deteriorating in Kachin state and Kachin refugee camps”, Franks wrote.
While noting the series of reforms put in place by Thein Sein's nominally civilian government Franks called for continued vigilance. The US “must be careful to take no action that could be interpreted as endorsement of any misconduct or human rights lapses by the Burmese government or President Thein Sein, particularly while the Burmese government is still dominated by a military with a very brutal past,” he said.
Franks also called on President Obama to continue to advocate for the rights of Burma's ethnic minorities. “With the additional credibility and validation that a presidential visit gives to the Burmese government, specific reform agenda items should be on the table, including the cessation of violence against the Kachin, Rohingya and other minority groups,” Franks wrote.
Franks's op-ed appeared the same day a group of Kachin environmentalists and farmers handed members of Obama's entourage a petition to cease funding the Hukaung (or Hugawng) tiger reserve in western Kachin state.
Dubbed the world's tiger reserve by Burma's government, the reserve covers the entire Hukaung valley which includes large-scale plantations operated by cronies of the previous military regime. Critics charge that the reserve is serving as a fig leaf to mask the environmental destructive agricultural and mining practices of crony controlled firms most notably the Yuzana corporation. The firm stands accused of illegally seizing more than 200,000 from local small scale farmers 2006.
Since the reserve's creation in 2001 the US federal government's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has spent nearly $400,000 to support the work of the New York based Wildlife Conservation Society in the valley. This includes a $59,077 grant from FWS in 2010 to support “anti-poaching patrols”. These patrols have been a source of controversy in particular because the anti-poaching units have the authority to shoot at suspected poachers on site.