Burma 'Not Ready' for Truth Commission

By Saw Yan Naing 15 June 2012

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.”