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Commentary: Lawlessness, the stuff that binds in Burma

Basil Fernando

Feb 12, 2008 (DVB), Last week, the Asian Human Rights Commission issued three appeals on cases of concern from Burma which illustrate the "un-rule of law" that pervades in the country.

The first described how Paing Hpyo Aung, a boy of less than 14, was recruited into the armed forces. He was 15 when in 2005 a military tribunal sentenced him to ten years for desertion.

He is still in jail in Arakan State, where he has just spent his 18th birthday. His parents have died, but his aunty, who only learnt of his fate recently through a former inmate, has appealed for his release.

The second revealed that Htun Htun Naing, a convicted gambler, was taken from Insein Prison in June 2006 and sent to work as an army porter in Karenni State.

At the end of the year a military officer came and told his family that he had died from malaria.

They were not given death or medical certificates, but in January the next year were sent a notice that they would be paid compensation for his death: to the grand total of 7200 Kyat, which these days is worth less than six US dollars. They have requested more, so far to no avail.

The third recounted the imprisonment of Khin Sanda Win, a young woman detained after the protests of last September and accused of carrying illegal arms.

Although she was released from the Kyaikkasan interrogation camp in October after signing a pledge, she was rearrested in November and charged with endangering human life.

Inexplicably, Judge U Thaung Lwin in the Kyauktada Township Court initially granted bail at an amount far beyond what should have been set then unilaterally retracted it.

Each of these cases falls into a different conventional category of human rights discourse: child soldiers; forced labour; political prisoners. But in fact, each is bound to the other by a common cause: the utter lawlessness which pervades all aspects of Burma’s judicial and political administration.

Last December, a unique study took up this feature of life in Burma. Describing the country as suffering from "political psychosis and legal dementia", it approached lawlessness as the symptom of an administrative and judicial system gone mad; a condition that impinges daily not only on the lives of those persons that are the subjects of typical human rights interventions and media interest, such as political leaders and prisoners of conscience, but of all persons everywhere within its borders.

Yet despite the extent to which in Burma transactions and abuses alike are characterised by what has been described as the "un-rule of law", this hallmark attracts relatively little interest.

We know that the courts are not independent, but we don’t properly understand how. We know that the police are militarised and the fire brigade has policing functions, but we have not sought to understand these things in detail.

We know that all types of rights violations are linked to the lack of avenues for complaint and redress yet we divide them into classes that emphasise their differences rather than draw upon their similarities.

Neither Paing Hpyo Aung’s aunty nor Htun Htun Naing’s wife are known to have received replies to their written requests for relief. Khin Sanda Win’s lawyer keeps pushing her bail petition from one court to the next with a predictable lack of success. Whether struggling to deal with a jailed boy, a dead husband or an irrational judge, the consequences are the same.

Naturally, no one accepts such things happily. Out of sheer frustration and necessity, people take to protest in even the most adverse circumstances. Discontent wells up and spills out, as it did last year; and as the causes for such dissatisfaction persist, so too will its consequences.

Those who challenge abuse and protest wrongdoing will find the ways and means to continue to do so, as they must. For the rest of us, the task is to understand properly why it is that they must.

This depends first upon us acknowledging that widespread unease is born of common grievances, and second, upon our ability to comprehend and further the struggle for change not primarily in terms of discrete categories of rights but in terms of their universality.

Basil Fernando is Executive Director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong, China.


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