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Putting the Boot In

By Bertil Lintner

It's time to consider how to bring the brutal generals to justice

Nothing galvanized the Burmese nation against its colonial masters more than a proclamation in 1917 saying that British officials would not have to remove their shoes when entering Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries.

It may sound strange to Westerners that this caused such an outcry, but, to the Burmese, it was the ultimate insult against their religion. The “Shoe Issue” dominated nationalist agitation in the 1920s, and it marked the beginning of the end of colonial rule in Burma.

Today, history is repeating itself, but in a much more brutal way. During the recent crackdown on the Buddhist clergy, heavily armed Burmese government soldiers not only tramped into sacred places of worship with their army boots on, but they also stole gold objects, televisions, mobile phones, fans and other items from the monasteries.

Monks were beaten, arrested and some were even killed. The army’s stampede into the monasteries should be seen as the beginning of the end of military rule in Burma.

But the question is, how will military rule end and a democratic order replace it? Certainly not through some kind of “dialogue” with junta leader Than Shwe and his coterie of thugs, who have shown time and again that they are willing to do anything to cling on to power, even desecrating the country’s holiest institution.

“Dialogue” followed by “national reconciliation” are popular buzz words with the NGO community, and with the donors on which they depend. But, under present circumstances, such a scenario is totally unrealistic. Worse, it is playing into the hands of the junta, as it gives it the benefit of the doubt.

For, as Kyaw Zwa Moe pointed out in an online commentary carried by The Irrawaddy on October 9, after the crackdown, “It’s game time again for the generals.” Having killed lots of people, the junta’s standard tactic is to throw out some bait to the international community to keep them guessing—and criticism at bay.

This time it is the appointment of a deputy labor minister Maj-Gen Aung Kyi to “liaise” with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It would be a serious mistake to see this as a “concession”; the junta is just buying time by making some foreign observers believe that progress is in motion.

At the same time, the junta is showing its intransigence by rebuffing resolutions by the UN Security Council and clinging to its own “roadmap” to “disciplined democracy,” a euphemism for continued military rule. At home, the generals have organized “mass rallies” in support of themselves.

A Canadian friend, Bradford Duplisea, sent me an e-mail after reading about this soi-disant “spontaneous outburst” of pro-junta sentiment: “While reading the most recent news from Burma, I remembered this quote from George Orwell’s 1984: ‘All over Oceania this morning there were irrepressible spontaneous demonstrations when workers marched out of the factories and offices and paraded through the streets with banners voicing their gratitude to Big Brother for the new, happy life his wise leadership has bestowed upon us’.”

Clearly, Burma’s Big Brother is no more likely than “Oceania’s” to listen to reason; it will just go on as before, whipping people into line, with brute force, if necessary.

Thus, the recent crackdown on the monks and others should also give Western—and Asian—proponents of “engagement” with the so-called State Peace and Development Council something to think about.

Among the most vocal of those advocates is Robert Taylor, who, in an essay in the 2004 National Bureau of Asian Research report, “Reconciling Burma/Myanmar,” suggested that the junta would be a good partner for the US in its war against terror. Another advocate of “engagement,” Morten Pedersen, a Dane who in his recent book, “Promoting Human Rights in Burma: a Critique of Western Sanctions Policy,” asserts that the best way to promote human rights in Burma is to cozy up to the generals.

Even more bizarrely, when monks and others were being killed and arrested in Rangoon, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German foundation, organized a Burma tour, in which, according to The New Light of Myanmar of October 7, “thirteen scholars with two from the European Union and the European Parliament” took part. The FES delegation visited a showcase “drug eradication project” in a remote corner of northeastern Burma, where, the paper said, they were received by “U Phon Kyar Shin,” who, in fact, is Peng Jiasheng, one of Burma’s most notorious drug lords.

Clearly, a more enlightened approach is needed, and the time has come to explore the possibilities of bringing the top leadership of the present junta to international justice.

Presently, there is only one international institution that can deal with crimes against humanity: the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. But there are other ways as well. The Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, for instance, was tried by a special UN-initiated International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The UN Security Council also set up a special court to try the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda. In Cambodia, another special court is now trying some of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who are being held responsible for crimes against humanity when they were in power from 1975 to 1979.

The ICC was established in 2002 as a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC should not be confused with the International Court of Justice, usually called the World Court, which is also based in The Hague and is the United Nations’ organ that settles disputes between nations, such as the 1962 settlement of the question of Thai or Cambodian ownership of the Preah Vihear temple complex.

Although crucial states such as China, India and the United States have not joined the ICC, it has managed to open investigations into four cases: Northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Darfur in Sudan. To date, the ICC has issued eight arrest warrants and two suspects, Congolese warlords, are in custody, awaiting trial.

The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor acts independently and is empowered to open an investigation under three circumstances:

  • When a situation is referred to the office by a state party;
  • When a situation is referred by the UN Security Council, acting to address a threat to international peace and security;
  • When the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber authorizes the Prosecutor’s Office to open an investigation on the basis of information received from other sources, such as individuals or NGOs.

The problem here is that, if the UN Security Council determined that the crimes committed by Burma’s ruling junta did pose a threat to international peace and security, permanent members China and Russia could veto such a resolution. Nevertheless, it is necessary for the discussion to move away from repeating the “dialogue” mantra, and to involve experts on international law to examine the possibilities of seeking justice for the victims of Burma’s present junta.

A campaign to bring the top leaders of the junta before the ICC or some other international judicial body would send a clear signal to other Burmese officers that the behavior of the Burmese army is unacceptable. It could also encourage those other officers to realize that it is pointless to continue to support an atavistic and anachronistic regime, which has no future. Then, a dialogue might eventually be possible, not with the incorrigible junta stalwarts, but with more reasonable army officers.

A main problem that Burma will have to face when the present regime collapses is that the civilian opposition does not have adequate capacity to fill the ensuing power vacuum. Burma has not had a truly civilian government since 1962 and lacks people with administrative skills and experience. For 45 years, Burma has had no power centers other than the military, and civil society has been almost totally suppressed, so a transition to civilian rule is not going to be easy.

However, Than Shwe and his closest associates are not going to give up power voluntarily, or negotiate away their power and privileges—and street demonstrations are not enough to oust their regime.

Burma’s only hope is a meeting of minds between elements of the armed forces and the pro-democracy movement. Together, they may be able to hold the country together when the junta falls. But first those alternative military elements have to be identified in order to isolate the top leadership.

Involving international judicial expertise could be the first step forward, but that should not be seen merely as a tactical maneuver. Those responsible for the carnage in Rangoon and elsewhere must be held accountable for what they have done, and it is only reasonable that the victims of their brutal rule are demanding justice.

As with a dialogue, national reconciliation can be achieved between more moderate elements of the armed forces and the population at large. But not with Than Shwe and his cronies.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, November 1, 2007

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