Guest Column

Burma’s Shame: Why the ICG’s Peace Award for Thein Sein Is Unconscionable

By Guy Horton 29 April 2013

I do not think the International Crisis Group (ICG) annual In Pursuit of Peace award should have been given to President Thein Sein.

We must give credit where credit is due: the release of political prisoners, the reduction of fear amongst the political opposition, the more relaxed media climate, at least in the Burman lowlands, as well as the substantial reduction in human rights violations inflicted on the Karen and Karenni in eastern Burma, are significant achievement.

Yet, the award’s bequest endorses a duplicitous process which, far from being a democratic transition, consolidates the military’s power in the form of a “Constitutional dictatorship”. Burma is and will remain a dictatorship in essence. All real power remains in the hands of the military. Even a quick reading of the 2008 Constitution reveals that the dictatorship has simply been “legalized.”

The most serious objection to the award is that its bequest implicitly legitimizes a regime which is allegedly responsible for crimes against humanity and arguably genocide. The ICG’s notorious history of nuanced understating of human rights violations to promote collaboration with successive regimes has finally culminated in this shameful bequest. A seal of approval has been given to what is a racist dictatorship.

The president himself may bear some responsibility both because of what he has done and what he has not done.

His demand, for example, during the height of the pogroms inflicted on the Muslim Rohingya in Arakan State, that they should either be expelled from the country or concentrated into camps, was an explicit incitement to commit the crimes against humanity of “the forcible transfer of population” and “the severe deprivation of liberty,” as defined in article 7 of the Rome Statute.

Moreover, because his government continues to deny the Rohingya full citizenship rights, it is institutionally responsible for inflicting the crime against humanity of persecution. As Head of State he must take responsibility.

Furthermore, little has been done to suppress the inflammatory abuse targeting Rohingya, and Muslims, in general. I am not a Muslim but they are our fellow human beings and are entitled to respect, security and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights. The president has failed, however, to act effectively against what are incitements to genocide and he has expressed no willingness to reform the citizenship laws which underpin state-sanctioned persecution.

He is the head of State of a country whose Rohingya population has been identified by Professor Schabas, as probable victims of genocide. The professor is the world’s leading authority on the subject and his institution carried out a detailed investigation into the plight of the Rohingya in 2010. Its report “Crimes against humanity in western Burma” identified the Rohingya as victims of four crimes against humanity.

The next reason why the ICG award should not be given to Thein Sein is that under his presidency the Burma army has inflicted what is probably the largest scale, systematic military assault on any ethnic group since World War II. I refer to the recent attack by tens of thousands of soldiers, backed by helicopter gunships and jet aircraft, on the Kachin ethnic group defending the last of their territory. I know this because I was there. The only reason why an even worse human rights tragedy did not take place was that media coverage showed, just in time, what was occurring and a tenuous ceasefire was imposed. The fighting overall, however, has resulted in nearly 100,000 Kachin civilians becoming violently terrorized out of their homes.

Thein Sein’s government has prevented aid from reaching many of them. The usual litany of terrible violations, in the context of UN reports going back over twenty years, including murder, sexual violence, forced displacement, torture etc. have been confirmed  by the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. Most of these violations are sufficiently widespread and systematic to justify investigation as crimes against humanity, as has been called for by the UN Special RapporteurTomas Ojea Quintana.

In short, the total number of displaced people terrorized and burnt out of their homes since President Thein Sein came to power exceeds well over 200,000 people. Is this a ‘Mandela moment’ to be celebrated with an international peace award?

The claim that the president did not know about the attack on the Kachin is not plausible. Planning and preparation took about 18 months. Troops were transported from all over Burma. This could only have been instigated, organized and implemented by the military’s Supreme Command. It is thus inconceivable that it was done without the president’s authority or, at least, connivance.

The excuse that it was done by some out of control local commander—a view put to me by a well-placed Burman apologist for the current transition—is as disingenuous as it is absurd. We should note that responsibility for crimes against humanity, according to the Rome Statute, requires only that “the commander knew or should have known” what has been inflicted. The president “should,” at least, “have known.”

Furthermore, it appears there may have been State connivance in the recent attacks on the Muslim population in lowland Burma. Vijay Nambiar, the special advisor on Burma to the UN secretary-general, condemned “the brutal efficiency of the attacks” and the Special Rapporteur reported allegations of State complicity. We should remember that a crime against humanity may not necessarily be a military attack: it “May be implemented by a deliberate failure to take action, which is consciously aimed at encouraging the attack” (Rome Statute article 7 (1) (a) footnote 6).

Satellite photographs of Meikhtila town for instance, confirm evidence of widespread, systematic destruction of Muslim areas consonant with crimes against humanity. The police appeared to deliberately fail to act quickly or effectively. We should contrast this to the brutal efficiency they used to attack the farmers resisting eviction from their land to make for the Letpadaung copper mine, an eviction subsequently endorsed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

In addition, the reduction of violations in the east are not genuine peace settlements but fragile agreements vulnerable to breakdown as is already happening in certain areas of Shan State. Thein Sein’s government shows no willingness to implement the kind of genuine political settlements which would provide real solutions to the ethnic conflicts. Instead, under the guise of well-funded, non-inclusive, non-transparent “peace and development” initiatives, ethnic farmers are being displaced by development projects and land confiscations. Meanwhile, the military uses the ceasefires as cover to reinforce its strength. “Development” in such circumstances can mean destruction.

Finally, his government has inflicted a flawed election and Constitution on all the people of Burma. Thein Sein’s government transformed a military dictatorship into a Constitutional dictatorship by concocting a bogus democracy through the imposition of the manipulated 2010 election and military-controlled Constitution on the people.

This lemon has then been sold to a gullible international community as a democratic transition courtesy of Aung San Suu Kyi. There is nothing democratic about the 2008 Constitution.

The ICG’s granting this award for Thein Sein is thus unconscionable. It has endorsed a military controlled government which now, and in its former guises, was, and is, allegedly responsible for crimes against humanity and genocide.

It legitimizes an illegitimate Constitution and betrays hundreds of thousands of human rights victims to a culture of permanent impunity. The scale of the West’s moral failure, its self-delusion, its mixture of realpolitik, cynicism and gullibility sustained by an inexhaustible supply of well-nuanced disregard, denial and misrepresentation by experts, is comparable to its response to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Peace in our Time’ fiasco of appeasing Hitler in 1938. There is no peace in Burma and there will be no peace until a genuine democratic Federal transition takes place.

This award, however, is not only the International Crisis Group’s day of  shame: it is also Europe’s, as it’s abandoning of sanctions is now aiding and abetting a regime which the UN Special Rapporteur rightly requested be investigated for crimes against humanity. But the real shame belongs to Burma itself. Not only is the hatred targeting Muslims repellent and disgusting, so too is the silence of Burma’s leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the so-called rights activists.

The teachings of the Buddha have been likened to the cooling protective shade of a great tree. I love trees, rain trees in particular. Burma needs that tree of cooling compassion more than ever now. If the so-called leaders will not speak out, then the people, the ordinary good people of Burma will have to speak out and act against the hate. We are all part of the human family. It is as simple as that.

Guy Horton is a Burma expert and research associate with Centre of South East Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.