Burma Must Heal Past Wounds to Find Peace

By Veronica Collins 8 February 2017

In her closing speech at the 21st Century Panglong peace conference, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urged those assembled not to dwell on the past but to “look to the future with courage.”

Unfortunately, that future is looking increasingly bleak. A report published today by ND-Burma found that 2016 saw a dramatic increase in the number of human rights violations recorded by civil society organizations. A total of 154 violations were documented in 2016, compared to 84 in 2015. It seems that under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the number of human rights violations recorded has almost doubled.

The spike can largely be blamed on the escalation of conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan states – most of the violations recorded are in some way related to the conflict. ND-Burma does not currently document in Arakan state, so the abuses carried out in the region are not included in the total. In actuality, the challenges of documenting human rights abuses—especially in conflict areas—mean that the true number of violations is much higher. This report is only a snapshot of the ongoing atrocities in the country.

The most common violation recorded was torture, with 67 instances documented in 2016, compared with 26 in 2015. This includes the case of a 51-year-old Kachin assistant pastor who was taken from his home by Burma Army soldiers. The soldiers reportedly accused him of having connections with the Kachin Independence Army, told him that he was a “dead man” and tortured him for three days. He was only released when colleagues came to the soldiers’ compound to confirm that he did not work for the KIA and to plead for his release. During an interview he said, “I do not want this kind of thing to happen to other people in the future and I want peace. I want the government to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again.”

Throughout 14 years of documenting human rights abuses, victims repeatedly asked for assurances that these crimes would not happen again. However, the country’s culture of impunity has led to ongoing, and at times escalating, human rights violations. As the International Center for Justice (ICTJ) has pointed out, human rights violations are “not only effects but also drivers of conflict,” creating a depressing cycle of violence that Burma seems unable to escape. Blanket denials from the accused perpetrators further destroy trust between warring parties and civilians and make peace impossible. Ongoing violations also contribute to mass displacement, as civilians flee their homes rather than risk torture, rape or death.

We do not know whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to discuss past abuses is a reflection of deeply held beliefs or the result of an agreement with the generals, who fear criminal tribunals and retribution. As recently as 2013, at an event commemorating the ’88 uprising, the Nobel laureate had counseled those assembled to “not forget the past [as] we must learn from history.”

However, it is a common misconception that redress must come in the form of criminal justice. In interviews with victims, many ask for nothing more than acknowledgment of the abuses they have suffered. As long as the government denies the crimes committed by its forces, the victims – who largely come from the ethnic nationalities – cannot trust that the violations will not recur.

Many former political prisoners want nothing more than recognition of their contribution to the democratization process. A good example of this can be seen in the 8888 Memorialization Hall, which opened in 2015 and honors those who stood up against the military in the ’88 student uprising. Such monuments signal that the country is ready to “learn from history,” and that leaders are striving to build a better future free from suppression and human rights abuses.

Other victims have more immediate needs and require some material assistance, often relatively modest. Disabled torture victims may require livelihood assistance or access to medical care. Former political prisoners who were unable to complete their education as a result of incarceration should be awarded their university diplomas and children who have missed significant stretches of school due to displacement should have their time in non-formal education recognized.

Such actions would allow Burma to begin to deal with its bloody past without endangering stability, which is currently dissolving as conflict intensifies across the country. The ICTJ has noted that there is a risk of victims’ positions becoming more extreme if the government refuses to engage with their current demands. This can be seen in land confiscation cases in which demands take the form of protests, sit-ins and even self-immolations if initial demands are ignored.

This year opened with the publication of a dispiriting report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, which stated “there is still a long way to go to achieve a society where individuals are free to share what has happened to them, to speak their mind, and to live peacefully without fear.” As long as Burma tries to bury its past, such a future is impossible.

Veronica Collins is ND-Burma’s Advocacy Manager