By Jared Ferrie
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar security forces "systematically" torture civilians in conflict-racked Kachin state, a rights group said on Monday, the third anniversary of renewed fighting between government forces ethnic minority insurgents in the northern state.
The Bangkok-based Fortify Rights group said it interviewed 78 survivors and witnesses of torture perpetrated by Myanmar's army, police and military intelligence agency.
Victims reported abuses that included stabbings, beatings and having wire tied around their necks.
"The torture and the abuses taking place right now in Kachin state constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity and very little is being done to stop it," Matthew Smith, the group's executive director, said in an interview.
Myanmar's government has been battling autonomy-seeking ethnic-minority guerrillas since shortly after the country, also known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948.
For decades under military rule, the rebels and civilians in ethnic minority areas accused the army of carrying out abuses, often as part of a strategy to deprive the guerrillas of civilian support.
The government and the army dismissed such accusations. Government spokesman Ye Htut could not be reached for comment On the latest report.
Such charges since Myanmar embarked on sweeping reforms in 2011 have raised fears that the army is less committed to change than the semi-civilian government that took power that year after five decades of military rule.
Fortify Rights said in its report torture was most often carried out by government soldiers attempting to extract information from Kachin civilians about the strength and movement of Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fighters.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been displaced since fighting between the KIA and the government erupted on June 8, 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire.
One of those displaced was Jay Ya, a 32 year-old teacher.
Speaking at a Baptist church in the main city of Yangon, Jay Ya said she had lost her youngest child while fleeing from her home when her village was attacked at that time.
Jay Ya, who was pregnant at the time, said she had fled with her two children but her young boy drowned as they were crossing a fast-flowing river.
"I couldn't hold onto my child and he was washed away," she said. Many Kachin people are Christian. Most of Myanmar's 60 million people are Buddhist.
The accusations of torture come as the government attempts to forge a national ceasefire with 16 ethnic-minority guerrilla forces. Only the KIA and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army have not signed separate pacts.
Successful negotiations would bolster the reformist credentials of the semi-civilian government.
The negotiations have shown little progress, partly due to mistrust of the government, according to Khon Ja, a coordinator with the Kachin Peace Network civil society group. She said the military ignored a Dec. 10, 2011, order by President Thein Sein to cease its offensive against the KIA.
"The president takes no action if his commands are not implemented," she said. "That's why we cannot trust Thein Sein."
Khon Ja pointed to another major sticking point: the ethnic minority groups want a federal system with autonomy for the ethnic-based states.
At the latest round of talks in Yangon in May, military representatives agreed to put to the government a proposal from the minority groups for the term "federal system" to be included in the national ceasefire pact.
But one analyst said he doubted it would mean much in practice.
"It's better than nothing, but in order to introduce a federal system they would have to write an entirely new constitution and that's not likely to happen," Bertil Lintner, an author of several books on Myanmar, told Reuters at the time.
Smith of Fortify Rights said the abuses documented in the 71-page report were undermining the peace effort. He said his researchers had found no evidence of torture by the KIA, although there are allegations the group recruits child soldiers.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)