“What happened to my daughter hurts so much. I curse the Burmese soldiers from the mountain for what they did to my daughter,” the mother of Roi Ja, a young woman who disappeared after being taken prisoner by the country’s military in 2011, said solemnly.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) which will lead the incoming government following a landslide election victory last November, has called for the people of Burma to “forgive and forget” the past atrocities committed by the military – known as the Tatmadaw – in order to achieve national reconciliation and to focus on rebuilding the country. Despite a lack of transparency about what has been discussed in closed-door meetings between Suu Kyi and some of the most powerful people in the country, including commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing and retired general Than Shwe, it is clear that former and present army commanders want to be protected from persecution for the crimes they committed.
There are two problems with this “forgive and forget” approach. First, it ignores the victim’s experiences and silences their demands for justice. Secondly, passing up the opportunity for the Tatmadaw to publicly acknowledge and be accountable for its past crimes encourages a culture of impunity to continue. This is not a call for seeking revenge against the perpetrators, but rather a call for justice for victims in order to hold perpetrators accountable for their past actions and to prevent the recurrence of abuses in the future.
A History of Tatmadaw Abuses
In spite of the political and economic reform process initiated in recent years, there has been an underwhelming ceasefire process, with armed conflict continuing between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups who have been fighting for a genuine federal system for decades.
During this decades-long conflict, the Tatmadaw has committed a wide-range of abuses against innocent civilians. These include forced displacement, arbitrary arrest and torture, extrajudicial killing, the use of systematic rape as a weapon of war, forced portering and the use of human shields in war zones.
Today, while the peace process continues to be far from complete, the Tatmadaw has continued to boost its capabilities, a trend which both increases its capacity to commit abuses as well as arguably undermines its commitment to peace with ethnic groups. In June 2015, the Tatmadaw signed a deal to purchase sixteen JF -17 combat aircraft from Pakistan for more than half a billion dollars. In addition, the Tatmadaw continues to recruit soldiers to grow its strong standing army estimated at over 300,000. For some seasoned observers, the question remains: who are the Tatmadaw preparing to fight, with their constant modernization of equipment and the expansion of their forces?
“Burma doesn’t have any external enemies, the country hasn’t fought any of its neighbors since early 19th century. Because of Burma being a neutral buffer state and its strategic location for some of the main powerful countries in Asia, nobody is going to attack Burma,” notes Bertil Lintner, an expert on Burma.
The answer seems clear: far from acknowledging and making amends for their past crimes, the Tatmadaw is preparing to conduct heavier offensives against the ethnic armed organizations which do not cooperate with them and, by extension, the civilians who live in the conflict areas. As it is, the Tatmadaw has used jet fighters and shelled indiscriminately against the public in the conflict zones in Kachin, and Shan States.
Culture of Legalized Impunity
After the establishment of a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein in 2011, there have been some small steps taken towards truth and reconciliation in the form of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), to accept, investigate and assess the complaints of human rights violations. The commission has nonetheless been heavily criticized for its lack of clear mandate, transparency and independence without any resolution, remedy or settlement for the human rights abuses committed. The initiative has failed miserably at providing any justice to victims.
In the final parliamentary session of 2015, outgoing president Thein Sein tabled a so-called “Former President’s Security Bill” which would provide him with immunity “from prosecution for actions taken in office.” The rushed action of the president indicates the guilt he feels for what he has done and the fear he has of being held accountable for those actions. The immunity he sought was in addition to the blanket immunity he already possessed according to Article 445 of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution which prohibits legal proceedings being brought against members of the previous military dictatorships that ruled Myanmar.
The Tatmadaw’s lack of acknowledgement of their past wrongdoings, on top of the ongoing fighting and modernization of the army, increases the risk of impunity. Several international and national rights-based groups have called for an investigation into crimes against humanity and war crimes committed, and persecution if applicable, while others call for truth-telling and reparations for the victims. The voices of victims and families of victims need to be an integral part of the decision-making process. The form that the truth and reconciliation process takes must be determined by the victims and their families.
While it is necessary to adopt a pragmatic approach on this issue for the sake of nation-building, the healing of the deep physical and emotional wounds of the victims should also be a priority. After all, the true purpose of reconciliation is to address grievances to overcome differences and divisions and to prevent the recurrence of the past crimes through truth and justice. An NLD policy of “forgive and forget,” by contrast, would be a misstep as it shuts down any aspiration for justice by victims and their families at the outset.
For now, true reconciliation still remains a pipe dream for many victims. For instance, the Burmese Women’s Union, an independent group, produced a short documentary film to allow the voices of victims of sexual violence to be heard. The film revealed that a pregnant woman and girls as young as 12-years-old had been subjected to gang rape and sexual violence in Shan State. As the victims of human rights violations and their family members still struggle to make sense of what has happened to them, and their family members, the perpetrators go on about doing their business as usual.
It is the state’s obligation to bring justice to the survivors and families of victims and stop the culture of impunity. The practice of rule of law must begin with bringing Burma into the legal fold by making the perpetrators accountable for their actions – whoever they may be. And it must begin with listening to the victims of human rights violations.
The mother of one of the two Kachin teachers who were brutally raped and murdered in Kawng Hka, northern Shan State, said in a recent interview: “I want to have justice, to find the perpetrator and punish the person accordingly.” Her wishes are basic and understandable. If only they were heard.
Stella Naw is an advocate for democratic federalism in Burma, with a special interest in reconciliation and the rights of ethnic and indigenous peoples.