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“If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen to side with the oppressor.” – Aung San Suu Kyi
A new art gallery recently opened in Rangoon. Set in beautiful gardens with a souvenir shop and coffee corner, it displays paintings of flowers and Buddhist iconography. Its smiling, civilised patron is Lt. General Khin Nyunt, the former head of Military Intelligence, the man who was allegedly responsible for much of the torture inflicted by Burma’s former military regimes.
The last time I directly came across Khin Nyunt’s reported activities was in northern Karen state in 2000. Part of the region had been terrorised by death squads, known colloquially as “Short Pants”. Their other, more onomatopoeic name, was Shwit A’Pweh: the sound of a knife cutting a throat.
The short pants were specially selected brutal NCO’s trained in terror. They consisted of small teams that travelled through Karen villages who initially killed all the dogs to ensure the necessary precondition of silence for their nocturnal depravities. In the darkness, terrified villagers in their stilt houses never knew where the short pants were. There were no dogs to warn them. There was no electricity. There were few torches. The jungle was thick with darkness. A call of nature might mean silent, sudden death.
During that time, victims’ bodies were “disappeared” usually into rivers. The wounds of surviving loved ones never healed. The short pants allegedly operated directly under the command of our friendly patron of the Rangoon art gallery: Lt. General Khin Nyunt.
Next time I am in Rangoon, I think I will look him up and have a chat. I understand he does not want to talk about the past and has re-invented himself through meditating, helping budding artists and enjoying the life of a reformed gent. But I want to talk about the past and the operation he allegedly ran because nearly everyone arrested in Burma reportedly went through his torture chambers initially, unless of course you were a rural villager, which meant you were more likely to be killed or tortured in situ.
I also want to talk about what he organised and who trained and funded his military intelligence and psychological warfare operations. And I want to tell him I am not yet ready to forgive and forget, while well over 200,000 Christian Kachin and Muslim Rohingya are being terrorised out of their homes.
None of this is politically correct. Some argue the timing is not right to have this type of conversation. It has not been “right” for 50 years, but since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the disregard and indifference has intensified. Bizarrely, a campaign for justice, which has collected and collated very detailed evidence of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and violations of common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and established a prima facie case of crimes against humanity, has been abandoned, even as the “widespread, systematic” violations continue.
The general complicit evasiveness is couched in the language of morality, i.e. “forgiveness and reconciliation,” thus making it difficult to challenge. In the topsy-turvy world of Burma’s brave new world of democracy exposure and condemnation of violations is “politically sensitive”; justice irrelevant; complicit silence prudent.“Failure to address injustice will scar present and future generations”
Although it is of course self-evident that pragmatism is often essential to facilitate the perilous transition from dictatorship to democracy, it is inappropriate to Burma now because there is no genuine transfer of power. Instead a cynical and disingenuous bandwagon misrepresents the military’s guileful consolidation of power as a democratic transition.
In reality, the military has simply reconfigured itself in civilian guise, imposed repressive tolerance on lowland Burma and “legitimised” its power in the form of the 2008 Constitution.
It can now actually shoot dead unarmed Rohingya women in displacement camps during the opening of the World Economic Forum and nobody even blinks. In the unlikely event of Aung San Suu Kyi being elected president this racist deceitful constitutional dictatorship will be lauded throughout the world.
Meanwhile, during the current process of apparent change, a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing has been inflicted on the Rohingya; pogroms have been instigated against Burmese Muslims; massive military assaults directed against the Christian Kachin.
In these circumstances, it is unconscionable for the political opposition to collaborate opportunistically with unreformed perpetrators. The policy of appeasement involving short circuiting justice, indulging in denial, feigning forgiveness, affecting amnesia all deny what psychological reality demands: cessation of violence; demonstration of remorse; implementation of justice.
Now the international community compounds its failings by refusing to fund even the survival needs of ethnic victims, while the symbols of capitalist modernity, glossy red Coca Cola trucks, triumphantly arrive in lowland Burma as if the Berlin wall had just fallen.
Norway, the home of the Nobel Peace Prize and a supposed human rights giant, dismisses the plight of the Rohingya as “an internal Myanmar matter”.
Now, the country has been awarded a “peace” dividend: a hugely lucrative mobile phone contract. Premier Stoltenberg’s dismissal of the plight of the Rohingya betrays one of the fundamental principles of international law: crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and violations of the Geneva Conventions are crimes of universal jurisdiction.
The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Mr Tomas Ojea Quintana, has called for an investigation into crimes against humanity in Burma supported by 16 leading nations. The former President of the Society of Genocide scholars and the world’s leading expert on the subject, the ever rightfully cautious Professor William Schabas, considers genocide applicable to the Rohingya.
Despite all the misrepresentation, disregard, understatement, complicity and indifference required to conceal the truth and promote Burma’s “Mandela like transition,” truth and justice cannot be denied. Failure to address injustice will scar present and future generations, undermine international law, strengthen Burma’s long tradition of despotism and reinforce fatalism.
Moreover, from a Buddhist perspective, perpetrators cannot escape judgement. In the next life, culprits will be reincarnated into pyettas, tormented spirits, unless they create genuine reconciliation in this one. That will require confession, remorse and atonement, the qualities the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka so nobly displayed. Whatever form justice comes in: redemptive, restorative or retributive, genuine contrition is required.
If Khin Nyunt and his collaborators escape the courts here in this life, the hungry ghosts will be waiting for them in the next. The ghosts, like the courts, will not be appeased with the old refrain: “I was only obeying orders.”
Guy Horton is a researcher on Burma at The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.