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Q&A with Chris Gunness from Myanmar Accountability Project

FROM THE DVB NEWSROOM

DVB sat down for an exclusive interview with Chris Gunness, the director of Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP). The interview has been edited for brevity.

Can we talk about the MAP project that you are working on. What is the main reason for it?

CG: [The] Myanmar Accountability Project, which we call MAP, began in response to the [2021 military] coup. I knew something was going to happen when the army said the election was a fraud and they didn’t accept [the results]. 

I sat down with a group of lawyers in London and asked the question: what we could do at this time. Universal jurisdiction is a concept of international law. There is a universal obligation on the countries in the world to bring the perpetrators to justice. On that basis, it is called universal jurisdiction. 

We have cases all around the world but we are concentrating on ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. I’m working with lawyers in Malaysia, in the Philippines, and we have a case recently in Jakarta, Indonesia. I’m also working with lawyers in Timor-Leste, which isn’t yet a member of ASEAN but may become a member. And I have also been talking to lawyers in Singapore. 

We are bringing cases in those jurisdictions against the [military] junta. It means most importantly that they can be held to account. But it also means that there is no safe haven for them. If they are going to a place like Malaysia, Indonesia, there is a chance that they could be arrested and put on trial. It is called the concept of no safe haven. There is the idea that they can’t run, they can’t hide or sleep well in the bed because the hand of the law is hovering over them and their families. I determine that we will continue to work on that because justice and accountability is an extremely important part of the peaceful future of Burma. There won’t be peace, stability and prosperity in Burma if there are war criminals running the country. The work that we are doing, I hope can contribute to peaceful and stable Burma.

You point out accountability and justice. But the military junta in Burma has committed crimes repeatedly since 1988 until now. I wonder why this continues? 

CG: The big question of Burma since independence, 1948 is the role of the military. The British left behind a country well; the only functioning institution frankly was the army. The British left the only institution strong enough to attempt to run the country was the military. Since 1960, it has committed a series of coups and it has been over 50 years and beyond. 

The question here is what is the role of the army. And until, there is a military leader who sees Burma can only prosper, function, and can be a member of the community of the civilized nations when the army is under the control of civilian leadership. 

In the present situation, that’s never going to happen. What we need is a military that is led by someone who is wise enough. Min Aung Hlaing is stupid, an idiot, and he doesn’t see this. It needs the military that is wise enough to realize that in the long term, the people of Burma that include the army can only prosper if the military are in the barracks and under the control of the civilian leadership. 

With the current domestic situation, external help is also important. Countries in the region are seeing more and more refugees, pouring out of Burma to India, Thailand, Bangladesh and other countries. We see Burma as the center of narcotics, we see Burma emerging as the center of criminality and none of these things are good for the Southeast Asia region. 

I know that you are trying to prosecute the military generals in Jakarta and the Philippines. How is it going?

CG: We have a war crimes case that is coming up. I can’t say too much about it. And we have a case we hope to be able to bring, perhaps in Malaysia. We are going to be naming specific individuals and accusing them of specific crimes. We have victims of specific crimes and evidence and we know exactly who did it. 

We do a lot of advocacy. At the moment, there is a PR [public relations] battle raging and the junta is very aware of it. That’s why, one of the reasons I think they reduce the sentences of Aung San Suu Kyi and others is because they want the world to think they are merciful and kind and generous. But I mean, we all know that it is illegal that the junta just extended the emergency rule for the fourth time. 

The illegal coup itself was a violation of the constitution. The sentences that were imposed on the democratically chosen leaders were illegal by the illegal regime. There is no legitimacy whatsoever. It is all part of the PR battle. But I think the junta is losing the PR battle. And around all of our cases we do a lot of advocacy. We have already denied their legitimacy. The regime is struggling for international legitimacy. And all of the cases that the MAP is bringing are part of the effort to deny them any legitimacy.  

Two years after the revolution, Burmese people feel the international community is so silent. What do you think about this? 

CG: I agree. There are terrible things going on in Ukraine, terrible things going on in Syria and Yemen all over the world. Every minute, there are fresh stories that push Burma off the headlines. But I think it is important to realize that there is a strong network of people or organizations like MAP, we are working tirelessly to make sure the plight of the people of Burma is never forgotten by the outside world. It is another example that we are all making a lot of noise and we are making sure that people of Burma are never forgotten. They feel that they are the people like me, like MAP like the organizations we all work for to make sure that they are never forgotten. And one day, there will be justice for the people of Burma.  

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