Monks File Case Against Senior Minister Over Letpadaung Crackdown

By Nyein Nyein & Andrew D Kaspar 16 March 2015

RANGOON — A group of monks has filed criminal and civil suits against Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko, alleging that he was responsible for a protest crackdown in 2012 at the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division, where more than 100 monks and others were injured when police fired incendiary weaponry into the crowd.

The monks’ family members filed the complaint against Ko Ko and the chief of the Myanmar Police Force, Maj-Gen Zaw Win, at the Salingyi Township police station on Wednesday. Whether police there will accept the case remains unknown, according to Aung Thane, a lawyer and member of the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network.

“They just took the paper and did not say anything except that they will report it to higher officials and get back to the families,” Aung Thane said at the press conference in Rangoon on Monday.

The early morning raid of a sit-in protest on Nov. 29, 2012, prompted widespread outrage in Burma and led to the creation of a government commission of inquiry chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The committee’s report on the incident found that police attempting to disperse the protestors had used smoke bombs containing the incendiary agent phosphorous.

The Myanmar Police Force falls under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Tikha Nyana, a monk who suffered severe burns to much of his body in the crackdown, told The Irrawaddy that due to his health condition, filing a lawsuit against the alleged perpetrators took more than two years.

“I was in hospital for one-and-half years, and am still trying to get back to normal again,” said the 66-year-old monk, who was flown to Bangkok to receive treatment after the crackdown and still finds himself too weak to travel frequently beyond his monastery in Monywa, Sagaing Division.

Aung Thane told The Irrawaddy that the lawyers’ network was assisting the Buddhists monks to promote accountability and justice in Burma.

“They want the accountability and responsibility, and these monks need the remedy,” he said. “They are not asking for compensation because they are monks; they are compassionate.”

Roger Normand, the director and founder of Justice Trust, a human rights NGO partnering with the Burmese lawyers, told The Irrawaddy: “We are hopeful, because it would be blatantly illegal for some court not to accept this case, because the facts of the case are very strong.

“We are asking the court just to listen to the case; we are not asking the court to decide right now guilty or innocent. It’s just to open the door of the legal process. But of course, because it is a very big political case involving very powerful people, we face the possibility that they will reject it.”

The lawyer Aung Thane said that if police in Salingyi do not accept the complaint, the monks would pursue different judicial channels such as taking the case directly to the township court.

Civil society groups and monks who participated in the Saffron Revolution have added their support to the Letpadaung victims’ case, launching a signature campaign on Monday for a petition that will later be submitted to Parliament.

Normand said that if the case was rejected at every level of Burma’s court system, the complainants would bring the matter to international forums, “both at the UN and any international courts, where we make the argument that unfortunately the Burmese system is closed right now, it’s not yet able to hear the case, therefore the case should be heard internationally.”

Odds of international avenues providing an adjudicated resolution look slim, however, with formidable political hurdles to any case being lodged with the International Criminal Court.

The controversial Letpadaung project is a joint venture between the Chinese firm Wanbao and the Burmese military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL).

Protests against the mine have been a frequent occurrence in recent years, with area residents worried over its environmental impacts, as well as complaining of inadequate compensation for land confiscated to make way for the project. The latest flashpoint came in December, when a woman in her 50s was shot and killed by police at the mine site.

The monks’ lawsuits mark the second time the Home Affairs minister has been directly accused of human rights-related transgressions. A report in November of last year accused Ko Ko of having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during a Burma Army offensive in Karen State. The offensive, from 2005-06, was carried out against ethnic Karen rebels and displaced about 42,000 civilians, as well as leaving an unknown number dead.

In its report, the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic said it had gathered sufficient proof of its allegations to satisfy the legal requirement for issuance of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court. Among other crimes, the minister was accused of ordering attacks on civilians, torture, extrajudicial killings, enslavement and rape.

Matthew Bugher, a global justice fellow at Harvard Law School and lead author of the war crimes report, said it was “not at all surprising that others have found credible evidence of more recent abuses” linked to the minister, who during the Karen State offensive served as leader of the Burma Army’s Southern Command.

“The government needs to address his penchant for violence by removing him from office and ensuring that he is held to account for his frequent involvement in rights abuses,” he told The Irrawaddy on Monday.