RANGOON — Burma’s current home affairs minister is one of three Burma Army generals who could be arrested and prosecuted for offenses that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under the previous military regime, according to a report released on Friday by a US-based human rights institute.
Home Affairs Minister Maj-Gen Ko Ko is implicated in a three-year offensive in Karen State that displaced some 42,000 civilians and left untold dead, the report by Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) said.
Brig-Gen Khin Zaw Oo, currently commander of Burma Army Bureau of Special Operations No. 4, and Brig-Gen Maung Maung Aye, whose position is currently unknown but who had served as Naypyidaw regional commander, are also accused of war crimes related to the offensive.
The 78-page report lays out a legal basis for the men’s guilt, and states that IHRC researchers had compiled sufficient evidence for the issuance of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
On Friday, however, the principle author of the report Matthew Bugher made clear that the IHRC was “not calling for a prosecution or an arrest,” and he noted that because Burma is not a party to an international legal treaty known as the Rome Statute, any ICC action would first require UN involvement.
“What we are calling for is a clear discussion about how to address these things, that involves all stakeholders,” he said at a press conference in Rangoon, calling the information presented “very sensitive.”
Focusing on a period from 2005-06 in Karen State, the report comes at an awkward time for the Burmese government, as US President Barack Obama prepares to visit the country for two regional summits amid a growing chorus of critics who say Naypyidaw’s once-vaunted reform program is backsliding. Its release also comes just weeks after the Burma Army admitted that journalist Aung Kyaw Naing was shot dead while in military custody.
Bugher said the timing of the report’s release was not intended to coincide with the upcoming Asean and East Asia summits, and was contingent on IHRC first meeting with the Burma Army. That meeting took place on Wednesday, when Bugher sat down with Deputy Defense Minister Maj-Gen Kyaw Nyunt for a discussion of the report’s findings, which Bugher said the minister assessed as “one-sided and inaccurate.”
Intentional attacks and displacement of civilians, forced labor, rape, torture and murder are just a few of the international crimes committed by two combat units—the Southern Command and Light Infantry Division 66—in Karen State, according to the report. The three generals named were not necessarily found to have directly ordered any of the abuses against civilians, the report says, but could be held criminally liable due to their positions within the chain of command hierarchy at the time.
The offensive’s purpose was “to drive the civilian population from [Karen National Liberation Army]-controlled areas to government-controlled areas or across the border into Thailand, where they could less easily provide material support to the armed group,” it alleges.
Based on interviews with some 150 people in Thandaung Township who were in some way affected by the offensive, the report says the abuses documented were likely only the tip of the iceberg.
“Given the limited geographic and temporal scope of its investigation, the Clinic believes that the abuses that it documented are only a small fraction of those that were perpetrated during the Offensive.”
An email to presidential spokesman Ye Htut seeking comment on the report went unanswered on Friday.
The report raises the thorny issue of transitional justice, and how to go about seeking accountability for decades of human rights atrocities in Burma.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a political prisoner for 15 years under the former military regime, has herself said she is not interested in pursuing legal action against members of the former junta, many of whom still serve in Burma’s quasi-civilian leadership ranks.
Bugher on Friday said the fact that the men accused in the report still hold senior positions in government was troubling.
“We are concerned that the commanders who oversaw these egregious abuses have a prominent place in the military and the government,” Bugher said. “We think that it calls into question the sincerity of the reform movement—the fact that the home affairs minister oversaw these kinds of abuses.”
In a separate report released on Thursday, the advocacy group Fortify Rights accused the Burma Army of more recent abuses in northern Burma, alleging that military personnel have “targeted, attacked, and killed civilians with impunity in ongoing fighting in Kachin State and northern Shan State.”
Its findings were corroborated by Bugher on Friday.
“We are also concerned that the policies and practices which we documented being implemented in eastern Myanmar in 2005 and 2006 continue to be implemented in [Kachin and Shan states],” he said.