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Commentary: Impunity bars justice for Burmese ethnic groups

Aung Htoo

June 11, 2009 (DVB), While the world has remained rapt by the trial of Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, the ongoing crisis over rights for ethnic minorities in the country has received little international attention.

Burma's ethnic minority groups constitute one-third of the population. This population has borne the brunt of the government's well-documented and widely condemned human rights violations. Ethnic children have been forcibly recruited into the army, some to act as minesweepers for troop patrols, while rape of ethnic women has been labelled by human rights groups an attempt to dilute the ethnic diversity of Burma. Their situation is being compounded by a culture of impunity in Burma It is only when greater international attention is focused on government impunity and on rights for ethnic minorities that Burma will be able to achieve peace.

This was an argument put forward by Professor Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, former UN special rapporteur to Burma from 2000 to 2008, in an article published last month in the New York Times. The article highlighted the grievances and loss of rights of the ethnic minority in the country, with whom he worked with for eight years.

While the plight of Burma's ethnic groups has been sidelined by the Suu Kyi trial, the Burmese government has focused greater attention, albeit highly cynical, on transforming armed ethnic groups into political tools for the convenience of next year's elections. One key issue that many observers have ignored is that if they accept such government proposals, they will effectively be complicit in supporting government impunity for crimes committed by the state army against their own people.

According to agency reports, a delegation of government officials lead by the junta's chief of military affairs security, Lieutenant-General Ye Myint, has met with the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) ceasefire group as part of a series of discussions with ceasefire groups across the country. It is understood that the government tried to persuade the Shan group to form a political wing to contest the upcoming elections, in return offering them an opportunity to retain their armed status by transforming into a government militia.

Rather than committing themselves to military rule, ethnic ceasefire groups should take this opportunity make demands about their status in the country and to speak out about their loss of rights.

'License to Rape', a 2002 report by the Shan Women's Action Network that gained attention from the international community, highlighted details of rape cases against Shan women by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) army. But the SSA-N never made significant calls for international action against the SPDC's crimes either against Shan people or other ethnic minorities. Similarly, the SSA-N stayed silent about the government's manipulation of Burmese law under which their leader, Colonel Hso Ten, was in 2005 imprisoned for 106 years.

If the SSA-N bows to government persuasion and forms a political party to enter the elections, they would automatically be placed in a position where they accept the 2008 constitution. Buried within the constitution is section 445 of the penal code, which grants the government an amnesty for crimes committed by the army during the State Law and Order Restoration Council era from 1988 to 1997. This would effectively mean the group supports an ongoing culture of impunity in Burma. Pinheiro documented a case where a Burmese soldier last December abducted, raped and killed a 7-year-old Karen girl. Authorities refused to arrest the soldier; instead, officers threatened the parents with punishment if they did not accept a cash bribe to keep quiet.

This culture of impunity is becoming a huge problem for Burma, and is compounded by the country's failing legal system. But pure political thinking which aims to bring a solution merely to arguments about the constitution or the election will not solve the current situation. We need to build a new approach by restoring law and order under a framework in which whoever commits a crime can be punished.

If Burma continues with the current 2008 constitution, people whose basic human rights were violated by the government will be denied their right to seek justice under legal terms of the abuses suffered. Furthermore, it would encourage such abuses to continue free of punishment. Since 1990, the United Nations' special rapporteur has made 37 visits to Burma while the international body's General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have passed over 35 resolutions regarding Burma. The UN Security Council, however, is yet to pass a single resolution.

Pinheiro points out the international community's "diplomatic efforts [have] failed to bear fruit" and "the country's domestic legal system will not punish those perpetrating crimes against ethnic minorities". In this context, he says, "it is time for the United Nations to take the next logical step".

Were this to happen, a possible indictment by the International Criminal Court could be on the horizon. This, Pinheiro argues, would have the dual effect of bringing greater attention to impunity in Burma, and deterring future crimes against humanity. If the ceasefire groups do not consider these facts and instead join hands with the government, whilst ignoring crimes being committed by them, they will, as the Burmese saying goes, be hiding from a lightning strike under a palm tree.

Aung Htoo is general secretary of the Burma Lawyers’ Council


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