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Bawk Jar Lum Nyoi.  Photo courtesy of Brittis Edman and Civil Rights Defenders


When Kachin human rights activist Bawk Jar Lum Nyoi was arrested on July 18th and charged with negligent homicide, most Burma watchers were shocked — even those of us accustomed to seeing friends hassled by Burmese authorities. As an ethnic minority woman working for human rights in a community dominated by traditional Kachin leaders and a country dominated by the military, Bawk Jar’s activism has always stood apart. Far from taking radical anti-government action, Bawk Jar typically has tried to work within the confines of Burma’s political system: filing cases in the tightly controlled judiciary and running for parliament against a former military officer. Unfortunately, her recent arrest shows that despite the apparent changes in today’s Burma, there is no safe way to challenge the entrenched interests of the military and its cronies.


Bawk Jar began working on human rights in 2006, when she saw how Kachin farmers were suffering from illegal land seizures and environmental degradation caused by mining, logging and agri-business interests close to the military regime. In November 2010, hopeful that serving in elective office would strengthen her activism, she stood for parliament as a candidate of the National Democratic Force (NDF) opposition party. Her opponent was Major General Ohn Myint of the regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Ohn Myint’s ‘victory’ in Kachin State was one of the more blatant frauds of the deeply flawed 2010 elections, if only because he had such a highly regarded opponent and he was openly despised by the local Kachin community. Just seven months prior to the elections, Ohn Myint had been removed as northern regional military commander due to his poor relations with the Kachin community. Prior to his removal, he reportedly told Kachin leaders “All you will get from us [the Army of Burma] is bombs, shells and bullets” and threatened to sack the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) headquarters at Laiza “within ten minutes.”


Following her electoral loss, Bawk Jar began traveling extensively in the 8,400 square mile Hukaung Valley Tiger Preserve to document environmental damage from extractive development and illegal land seizures within the preserve. She found the preserve empty of tigers and seriously damaged from mining, clear-cut logging, and agricultural plantations. A 2012 report from the Kachin Development Networking Group came to similar conclusions. They also identified the Yuzana Company as responsible for much of this illegal development. Of the large domestic conglomerates, Yuzana, and its owner Htay Myint, have among the closest ties to Burma’s military.


Bawk Jar’s fight to call attention to crony-backed development in the preserve put her at odds with both an internationally renowned tiger expert, who blamed the local population for the disappearance of tigers, and her old nemesis Ohn Myint, who was by then serving as the Minister of Livestock and Fisheries. This was a deeply ironic appointment given Ohn Myint’s past role in facilitating Yuzana’s land seizures and environmentally destructive development in the Hukaung Valley.


Despite the risks, Bawk Jar continued her campaign, filing lawsuits for farmers whose land was seized and launching other advocacy efforts. When hostilities resumed in Kachin state in 2011, she set up schools for orphans and provided relief to displaced people, then co-founded Vision of Peace, a group of like-minded ethnic leaders working for a nationwide ceasefire and peaceful negotiations between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups.


It was through her humanitarian relief efforts that Bawk Jar appears to have given an opening to her powerful enemies. She reportedly was providing unofficial medical care to underserved Kachin communities last year, when a person in her care died. The NDF and other organizations have denounced her arrest over this incident as a thinly veiled political attack, in line with tactics used by other authoritarian regimes to silence their critics. How Bawk Jar’s case is resolved will be an important test of whether Burma’s government is really changing its ways. Likewise, how the international community responds to her arrest will say a lot about the standards by which it is judging Burma’s unfinished transition.


Kelley Currie is a special contributor to the Freedom Square blog. Kelley is a Senior Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute. Prior to joining the Institute, Kelley served as an advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs.