All Eyes Averted, Notorious General Steps Up

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 18 August 2015

RANGOON — The political turmoil within Burma’s ruling party that has unfolded since late last week sufficed to mute an odd ministerial appointment that might otherwise have raised more eyebrows.

On Friday, President Thein Sein appointed Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko—who was all but labeled a war criminal by an esteemed legal research team last year—as Minister of Immigration. He will maintain his role as head of home affairs.

The understated appointment followed shortly after a purge of leadership in the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which for months had shown signs of discord among its ex-military membership.

Its former chairman, Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, was removed from his party post as security forces surrounded the USDP compound on Thursday night, along with several colleagues viewed by some as too close with the opposition.

While the party rearranged its leadership in advance of a Friday deadline to register candidates for a general election in November, Thein Sein synchronously reconstituted his government. Former Immigration Minister Khin Yi was allowed to resign the night prior along with several other cabinet ministers, clearing the way for Ko Ko’s appointment.

Ko Ko and two other former generals—Brig-Gen Khin Zaw Oo, who has just retired from the military to join the USDP, and Brig-Gen Maung Maung Aye, whose current position is unknown—were the subject of a 2014 report by the Harvard-affiliated International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) claiming that sufficient proof had been gathered against them to justify an arrest warrant for Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes.

The report detailed part of a military offensive against ethnic minorities carried out by the Burma Army in Karen State and Bago Division from 2005 to 2006, pinning Ko Ko as “the military officer responsible for the execution of the offensive.”

“The Clinic has collected sufficient evidence of Major General Ko Ko’s criminal responsibility for crimes committed by soldiers from Southern Command, LID 66, and other combat divisions to meet the ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ standard set by Article 58 of the Rome Statute for the issuance of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court,” the report read.

Despite the disorder unleashed in recent days, Ko Ko’s appointment didn’t go unnoticed. One of the report’s principal author’s, Matthew Bugher, remarked on Monday that the move “flies in the face” of decency and perpetuates the government’s “decades-long policy of rewarding bad behavior.”

“Rather than expanding Ko Ko’s power,” Bugher suggested via email, “the government should be ensuring that his crimes are investigated and prosecuted.”

Minister of Information Ye Htut did not respond to The Irrawaddy’s multiple requests for comment, but others were eager to chime in. Khin Zaw Win, the director of a Rangoon-based think tank called the Tampadipa Institute, warned that the move could backfire.

Particularly alarming, he said, was the appointment of a serving military officer—not to mention one with such notoriety abroad—to a ministerial position appointed by the president, not the Armed Forces. The move betrays a fluidity between the USDP and its forebear, the military, that in recent years appeared to be fading.

“It would make sense if there was emergency situation,” Khin Zaw Win said, “but what they are doing sort of proves that they are hardliners.”