Student Profile: Covert Human Rights Fact-Finding in a Conflict Zone

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Hardly anyone moved between the villages at night. Fighting in Kachin State was constant and soldiers from the Myanmar military patrolled the jungles, stopping anyone they found for questioning. The Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar military were in the midst of a civil war that dated back to the 1960’s, but which had intensified since the 17 year long ceasefire broke in 2011. Monitoring groups estimated that upwards of 75,000 people in the region had been displaced by the fighting, with increasing reports of atrocities committed against civilians.

During this time, Chili Lu travelled through Kachin State, meeting with villagers in conflict areas documenting and reporting on the abuses they were suffering at the hands of Myanmar soldiers. Incidences of the military deliberately targeting civilians had been documented, but the fighting made the region extremely dangerous and there were precious few people conducting fact-finding work.

Chili Lu sat with scores of villagers and collected their firsthand accounts of the horrors that had become everyday occurrences in Kachin State. She listened to a woman who fled into the jungle with her 6 month old baby as soldiers swarmed her village, and later received word that her husband had been murdered. She heard stories of neighbors disappeared, carried away by soldiers and never seen again. She met with men who had been forced to work as porters, made to carry heavy loads, facing torture if they refused. Another woman remembered how her whole village watched as her home was burned to the ground. Everyone had seen what had happened, but there was nothing they could do. They were afraid of what retribution would fall on them if they were to talk, and so Chili Lu met with them in secret. By documenting what they told her, she was risking her own life as well.

One evening, while walking between villages, a voice from the brush told her to stop. She felt the weight of the camera that she had hidden on her body, and tried not to show how afraid she was. The voice materialized, and Chili Lu tried to stay calm and remember the alibi she had practiced as the soldiers approached and began to question her. She told them that she was travelling between villages doing work for the church. They let her go without finding her camera, and she continued to the next village and met with the people who lived there, in secret, to hear their stories.

Chili Lu was born in Shan State, and later moved to Yangon with her family. After cyclone Nargis devastated much of the coast in 2008, Chili Lu traveled there to help. She volunteered with humanitarian relief efforts in communities that had been completely destroyed, and it was here that she first felt a hunger to do human rights work. Subsequently, she has done fact-finding research in Kachin State, and has worked for Light of Hope, a Kachin youth organization.

She recently finished her law degree which she hopes to use to someday represent the people of Kachin in parliament. While the Kachin people receive support from outside agencies, Chili Lu hopes that more efforts are designated to build their capacity for a long term solution. Regardless of the conflict, she believes that people need a sustainable way to provide for their own livelihoods and she wants to find a way to help them do this.

Chili Lu is one of the 14 new students joining our EarthRights School Myanmar for our 2013 session. The school opened its doors for the 12th year running this April and, once again, we feel privileged to be hosting such a dedicated group of men and women. Our students this year come from all different regions and ethnic nationalities within Myanmar, and bring with them a wide breadth of outlooks, opinions and life experiences, but they all share a common commitment to defending the human and environmental rights of their communities. In the coming months we will be sharing some of their stories, and we hope you will help us celebrate their courage and their work, and stand in solidarity with all of those working towards a more just Myanmar.

This post was written by Patrick Boyle, former staff.

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