Myanmar’s military: Judge, jury, executioner

    What’s the likelihood of Myanmar’s army disciplining itself to fulfil its obligations under international law?

    12 Apr 2015 05:20 GMT | Human Rights, Asia, Myanmar

    About the Author
    David Baulk | David Baulk is a Gender and Development consultant, focusing on the human rights of women in Burma.

    Earlier last week, the attempt of two Buddhist monks to prosecute those responsible for the violent suppression of peaceful protests at the Letpadaung copper mine were rejected. Despite the international condemnation of security forces’ handling of the protests – in which over 100 people were injured – those who orchestrated the crackdown will not face justice.

    This follows the brutal dispersal of student protests earlier this month, reports of continued human rights abuses in the conflict-affected Kokang region, and the rape and murder of two volunteer teachers in Northern Shan state. The thread which links these events is Myanmar’s military – both in the perpetration of the crimes, and the process of establishing justice for them.
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    It is worth remembering that the ministries responsible for ensuring justice in the cases outlined above are headed by appointed representatives of the military (Tatmadaw), as established by Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution.

    Effective remedy

    Despite repeated calls for Myanmar to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and to meet its obligations under international law, effective remedy for victims of human rights violations is not a right the Tatmadaw are willing to grant.

    It is not surprising then, that investigations into recent human rights violations overseen by the Tatmadaw are viewed with suspicion by those inside Myanmar.

    The Tatmadaw’s control of Myanmar’s justice system is the keystone of their continued influence over the country’s polity. Dominion over Myanmar’s legal process has long afforded them the space to commit crimes with de facto impunity, and impede the right to effective remedy for victims.

    The prosecution of Brang Shawng – charged for making “false charges” against the Tatmadaw for their involvement in the murder of his 14-year-old daughter – is a pertinent example of this. In an indication of the Tatmadaw’s sway over remedial processes in Myanmar, Brang Shawng’s letter to the institution established to uphold the human rights of people in the country – the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission – forms the basis of the case against him.

    The rape and murder of Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin in January – believed by many to have been perpetrated by Tatmadaw soldiers – once again focused attention on the Tatmadaw’s control of Myanmar’s judicial process. The inquiry into the case has not resulted in any criminal charges, and the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) – for whom the two girls were volunteering – have reported the intimidation of locals by the Tatmadaw to pervert the course of justice.

    Despite the wealth of evidence pointing to their complicity in these abuses, however, the Tatmadaw continues to direct the remedial process for individuals challenging human rights violations.

    Legal action

    Alongside this, legal action has been threatened against anyone accusing the Tatmadaw of involvement in the crime. The committee charged with establishing justice for the case is being overseen by Major General Ko Ko – the appointed representative of the Tatmadaw heading the home affairs ministry.

    Comprehensive evidence of Ko Ko’s involvement in war crimes does not augur well for those hoping the Tatmadaw will play a more constructive role in Myanmar’s much-vaunted reform process in the future. Nor does the refusal to accept liability for their role in the ongoing sexual violence in Myanmar’s ethnic communities.

    Despite the wealth of evidence pointing to their complicity in these abuses, however, the Tatmadaw continues to direct the remedial process for individuals challenging human rights violations. The rejection of the lawsuit filed by the Letpadaung protesters is yet another example of how the only justice available in Myanmar is that which receives the Tatmadaw’s imprimatur.

    In the aftermath of the student protests, President Thein Sein appointed the deputy minister for home affairs – Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun – to lead a commission determining whether the authorities “acted in line with legal procedures”.

    Little optimism

    Given that the Burmese legal framework places responsibility for the behaviour of these authorities – in this case, the police and plainclothes men who violently dispersed the protests – with the home affairs ministry, there is little optimism that the commission will yield any substantive justice.

    What is the likelihood of Myanmar’s most powerful institution disciplining itself to fulfil its obligations under international law? This is an important question for all those who continue to support the country’s transition through trade, investment, and aid.

    The gravity of the crimes committed at Letpadaung should not be underestimated. The security forces’ use of white phosphorous against protesters constitutes torture – a clear violation of international law. Yet, the culpability of the minister of home affairs means the likelihood of those affected obtaining justice is slim.

    The influence of the Tatmadaw over Myanmar’s judicial process remains the single largest obstacle to the country meeting its obligations under international law, and upholding the human rights of its citizens. As long as this remains the case, and the Tatmadaw continues to direct the country’s transition, the Myanmar citizens fighting for justice will continue to do so at their own risk.

    David Baulk is a gender and development consultant, working with civil society organisations focusing on the human rights of women in Myanmar. He is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.