The Irrawaddy

A Critical UN Report and What Is to Come

Bertil Lintner (born 1953) is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.[1] He was formerly the Burma correspondent of the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and currently works as a correspondent for Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and Denmark's Politiken. (Photo - Sai Zaw)

The UN Human Rights Council released its ‘Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’ on Monday, calling for genocide charges against the country’s military leadership for attacking Rohingya Muslims, and blaming the country’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to intervene.

A few hours after the report was released, Facebook shut down Myanmar military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook page, stating that the company was acting on the UN report that found the Facebook accounts and pages of the military chief and other individuals and organizations to have directly or indirectly contributed to human rights abuses.

In the wake of the release of the UN report, The Irrawaddy talked to Swedish journalist and Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner, who has been covering Asia for four decades and written extensively about the country’s politics, about the possible consequences of the report on the country and the military, the Snr-Gen’s account shutdown and its implications.

The UN report was just released. It called for prosecution of the military leadership. What consequences do you think will come of the report?

Well first of all, I don’t think the report is going to have that much of an impact at all. If they bring this case to the International Criminal Court, Burma isn’t a signatory of the Rome Statute. Bangladesh is but it is very hard to prove it because it wasn’t committed on the Bangladesh side of the border. But even if the Bangladesh government decided to refer it to the ICC, what are they going to do? I mean the accused are here in this country and they are highly unlikely to go to any country where they are likely to be arrested. So it’s mainly symbolic – the impact will be more symbolic when it comes to any kind of legal matters. The court does not have jurisdiction over Burma so there’s nothing they can do here really.

Facebook has banned the Snr-Gen, citing human rights violations from the UN report. On the other hand, the social media platform was under fire for failing to handle hate speech. What’s your take?

I think Min Aung Hlaing is much more upset about being excluded from Facebook than the fear of being brought before the ICC because this is something that has really impacted him directly.

There have been a lot of complaints to Facebook about hate speech and it’s not confined to Burma at all. It’s kind of universal that Facebook allows anything to be assimilated through their website. The way Facebook works it that anyone can write anything really. You can use a fake name and do whatever. I think it’s created a bit of a crisis even for serious media outlets – magazines, newspapers, websites, which are more dedicated to maintaining good journalistic standards. Facebook is a great tool for communicating with people to send messages but when it comes to assimilating information it can also be very destructive and Facebook eventually came under pressure to clean up its act. What they have done now—removing 20 people, I believe, from Burma— it’s part of their attempt to restore people’s confidence in it.

Soon after the ban, the Myanmar government spokesperson said the shutdown had nothing to do with the government, as it has a state-sponsored social media monitoring team. The spokesperson, U Zaw Htay, said he was concerned that the ban could have impact on national reconciliation, as the shutdown could cause misunderstanding between the military and the civilian government. What do you think?

Well I don’t think there is much national reconciliation going on anyway. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in that relationship (Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing). We know it’s very strained already. They hardly talk to each other from what I understand. And Aung San Suu Kyi is stepping very carefully so as not to further antagonize the military. If this is going to have a backlash on that, I think it’s too early to say. But it’s quite possible that it’s not going to make the military happy when it comes to military-civil relations in general. I think that’s as much as we can say at this stage.

The recent UN report was the latest condemnation by the West so far. Could they be a contributing factor that makes Myanmar move closer to China?

Absolutely. I mean, that’s what is happening. You saw what happened following the attacks in August last year. The Western world condemned the Burmese army for what it did and while I’m not saying the condemnation was unjustified because immense brutalities were carried out, there’s no doubt about that, 700,000 people were driven across the border. But the very strong condemnation from the side of the Western world made Burma move back to China.

We have to remember that all the reforms were implemented in 2011-12 starting with freeing political prisoners, allowing political organizations to operate more freely than before, and of course the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project. All this was done not because the ruling generals had some kind of democratic awakening experience; it was done because they had become too dependent on China during the years of isolation.

I have recently come to believe that the military chiefs had become acutely uncomfortable with the relationship and the dependence on China. Therefore, they wanted to open up to the outside world and they realized the only way to do that was to allow certain freedoms because otherwise the West would never have responded in the way they wanted them to respond. Of course they could see how Burma was drifting away from China – you had Hilary Clinton coming here, Obama coming twice – and the Chinese were sort of taken aback by this.

I understand the Chinese spent a whole year studying China-Burma relations and they probably realized they had put all their eggs in one basket: the military. So they decided to diversify their contacts. They established connections with the NLD, the 88 Generation, with Burmese journalists and so on.

They have been working very hard to reestablish the close relationship they once had. And of course they were helped to a great extent by what happened after the crisis in Rakhine State last year because as you know they blocked any attempt to raise the issue in the UN Security Council. What happened after that was both Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing went to China. She was in Singapore recently, she’s been in some Asian countries and that’s all. Relations between the West and Burma have become very strained and almost impossible to repair after what happened in the last year.