Burma ‘Not Ready’ for Truth Commission

An IDP family shelters from the rain in the Karen jungle. (Photo: Free Burma Rangers)

An IDP family shelters from the rain in the Karen jungle. (Photo: Free Burma Rangers)

Burma is not yet ready to follow in South Africa’s footsteps by embarking on a path toward transitional justice, said several Burmese dissidents in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai on Thursday.

The comments came at a roundtable discussion involving representatives of the Karen National Union (KNU), Burmese exile groups and international NGOs, and coincided with remarks made by Aung San Suu Kyi at an ILO conference in Geneva the same day.

Various speakers and observers at the seminar in Chiang Mai agreed with the fundamental issue that it is too early to talk about transitional justice in Burma or the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as in South Africa. Several voiced the opinion that such a move could even hinder the ongoing process of political reform in Burma.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an independent body carrying out judicial inquiries into past human rights abuses, which was established in 1995, the year after the fall of apartheid.

The South African commission heard from witnesses and victims of gross human rights violations. Alleged perpetrators of violence were called to give testimony at both civil and criminal proceedings.

Asked about a system of transitional justice for the thousands of ethnic Karen refugees over decades of civil war, KNU Vice-president David Tharckabaw said that the plight of refugees should not be forgotten but that such a judicial process was impractical at the present time. However, he said, it may come one day in the future. The KNU vice-president said that the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees should be the priority.

Other observers said that the process of transitional justice would be a very challenging program in Burma, and that most of the international community, including INGOs and donors, would be hesitant about raising such a sensitive issue while backing the new Burmese government’s program of political reform.

One participant opined that victims may finally have a chance to forgive the Burmese military for its atrocities, but could never forget what they had suffered.

In order for Burma to progress toward national reconciliation and sustainable peace, there must be a process whereby restorative justice is achieved, according to a statement by a Burmese exiled dissident group Burma Partnership.

Like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body should provide opportunities for victims to air their grievances openly, and for those whose rights have been violated to be compensated for their suffering, the group urged.

Unless such a process and solutions to the problems and grievances are found, then a lack of trust and structural violence, manifested through social injustice, political repression and economic inequality will continue to exist, said the report.

The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), which was founded recently by the Burmese government, is, however, unwilling to talk about any judicial proceedings, said an NGO coordinator who works with war refugees at the Thai-Burmese border.

Several dissident groups noted on Thursday that there exists no domestic institution, including the MNHRC, which is capable or willing to address such widespread and gross violations, and that the MNHRC itself lacks independence, effectiveness and transparency.

However, not every group believed that the time was not ripe for such a judicial commission. The Thailand-based Network for Human Rights Documentation (ND-Burma), an umbrella group of 13 human rights groups, has been documenting violations in Burma backdated to the military coup in 1962.

Kyaw Lin, a outreach officer for ND-Burma, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that it is not too early to prepare for transitional justice in Burma.

“It is definitely something Burma needs to prepare for,” he said. “Burma has been very isolated and the field of transitional justice has developed a long way since South Africa’s experience.”

Kyaw Lin pointed at East Timor and its Truth Commission, and to Cambodia’s current series of war crimes trials against Khmer Rouge leaders.

Kyaw Lin said that he doesn’t see the establishment of a transitional justice process as a potential blockage, but as an essential element in the current process of political reforms in Burma.

He said that as President Thein Sein and other government officials are consistently reiterating that they care about public opinion, such a truth commission, trials, reparations programs, and security sector reform would all help people believe that the government is sincere and that it cares about protecting and promoting human rights.

He said that transitional justice is not just about a truth commission or trials, but it is also about the rights of victims to seek psychological remedies to the violations they have suffered. In other cases, it would be to get their land back if it’s been illegally taken from them; to receive compensation if their loved one was killed unlawfully; or to access rehabilitation if they are suffering from trauma as a result of torture.

“Former political prisoners have a right to compensation for education and work lost, and they should have their professional licenses reinstated if they were doctors or lawyers,” said Kyaw Lin.

Also on Thursday, at an ILO conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Aung San Suu Kyi was asked to address questions about the human rights abuses committed against civilians by the Burmese army over the years. Suu Kyi struck a conciliatory note, citing her fellow Nobel winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid in South Africa.

“At this moment, what I want most of all is reconciliation and not retribution,” Suu Kyi was quoted as saying by AP on Thursday.

AP said that Suu Kyi took the same high road when it came to her own suffering at the hands of the ex-military, which denied her British husband the chance to visit her in 1999. He died of cancer later that year.

“In some ways I don’t think they [ex-junta] really did anything to me,” she said. “I do not think I have anything to forgive them for.”

3 Responses to Burma ‘Not Ready’ for Truth Commission

  1. “… Amnesty International has documented human rights abuses by the KNU in its efforts to control populations both in Myanmar and in neighbouring Thailand.” http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA16/012/1999/en/497059da-e117-11dd-b0b0-b705f60696a0/asa160121999en.html

    With all due respect to the KNU, it should be remembered that they are a military organization themselves, with documented human rights violations of their own, that would no doubt be brought up in the proposed T&R commission. Claims on their part that it is “too early” to consider such a commission must be met with a certain amount of skepticism that they are acting in protective self-interest of their own commanding officers, as opposed to genuinely reflecting the interest in the Myanmar community at large.

  2. well, if we are able to minimize:

    1) talking and discussing with focus on only the items we want
    2) taking into consideration only certain views
    3) looking only at certain time periods, certain areas, certain groups of peoples
    4) keeping personal and group’s goals
    5) emotions
    6) attachments to what we believe/love/respect
    7) multiple standards and bias
    8) worshiping and respecting certain powers/phenomenons
    9) following the emotional desires

    then we will be able to get closer to the truth. I still have over 80 years old parents, and several uncles and aunts about the same age group who have experiences of the past that we missed. I used to listen to elderly peoples since I was in secondary school about the events in their times. When I was young I liked to listen to the life stories of my grand parents. And I understand that the “time” existed even before all these old guys and all those who have already passed away.

    Things happen all the times and continuously. At each instant so many events occur and they could have relationships among them and with those that happened before. They are either simple enough for us to understand easily, or too complex to easily understand.

    All events do not get equal and fair share of media coverage. The possibility of an event recorded correctly, wrongly presented or hidden all together all have the values greater than zero.

    If certain group(s) of peoples own and or control the platforms of most popular media, then certainly there is always a good possibility of media representing them. Our books, history text books, newspapers, web pages, news, tv, videos, plays, songs, plays, teaching in the streets and schools, etc. all have at least some amount of bias and multiple standards.

    We tend to listen to someone much more than others, we tend to respect someone much more than others. We tend to talk about something (people) much more than other things (peoples).

    We tend to judge some event as more serious than others based on our senses, emotion or belief system. For example look at these two events and see which one you will detect easier or which one do you think is worse:

    a) killing 300 peoples
    b) making a group of 100 million peoples to hate other group of 100 million peoples by constant and undetectable media manipulation that cook up problems for generation after generation to follow, and seed the sources of many other uncountable problems into the future

    I saw peoples of group A killed 100 from group B at a time. Another person later said, before that instant, he saw peoples from group B killed 400 children from group A. Then an 88 years old man said a certain third group (C) gave fire arms and hate teaching to the group B. And yet more information could be discovered if we are “open” enough to listen, open enough to see all the possibilities, “open” enough to get rid of our attachments.

    Of course there could be some information which have been lost (or made to disappear) and may never be found again.

    So before we say we are after the ‘truth’ we must at first try hard to see the ‘truth’ within ‘us’.

  3. The cattious approach of KNU leadership on this question of TRC for Myanmar is the correct one. The parralells being drawn with SA and Timor, Cambodia are not only flawed but quite far too strecthed to suit the ones with an agenda for retribution. Suu Kyi’s statement that the military actually did not do any harm to her and there is nothing to forgive any one for that matter. This is a very mature and responsible on her part considering the delicate and sensitivity of the “stakeholders” in the “reform” towards a workable democracy for all the peoples of Myanmar. Those that raise this TRC for Myanmar at this stage need to fully understand and appreciate the history of armed insurgency in Myanmar that started in 1947 by the BCP.

    The most urgent priority for Myanmar at this time for all to work in UNISON and to be aware that all this attention by the international community must be “taken with a lot of salt”, by government and the people of Myanmar. The demand to open up the country quickly is to “dominate the economy” and “implant crony capitalism”, before the Myanmar people are prepared, educated, trained and capable of managing their abundent rich resources. As one Cambridge economist warned “no one will develop your country for you, you will have to do it yourself.” All this hype about democracy, human rights, etc. is merely “smoke-s”creen” to take away whatever they want before you are ready and capable of taking care of yourself. People of Myanmar, do beware. Global corporations only have one goal, their interests, not yours.

    Naphetchun Maung Sein
    California, USA

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