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Challenge impunity in Myanmar

  • Yozo Yokota

Tokyo | Tue, July 6 2010 | 09:07 am

Last month, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, told the United Nations that Myanmar’s ruling military junta may be committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that these international crimes should be investigated. I agree.

The past three years have drawn the world’s attention to the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Myanmar as never before.  Now Myanmar’s dictator Than Shwe is hoping the world has a short memory; he plans a façade of an election later this year, to put sheen of legitimacy on dictatorial rule.

The courageous protests led by Buddhist monks in September 2007, and the regime’s shocking crackdown, including the killing of Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai, exposed more clearly than ever before the regime’s cruelty.

Eight months later, Cyclone Nargis ripped through the country, leaving death and devastation in its wake, and the regime’s initial refusal to accept international aid workers evidenced its inhumanity.

The continuing military offensives against civilians in ethnic areas, particularly in eastern Myanmar, the assassination of at least one prominent ethnic leader and attempts on the lives of others and a callous disregard for a famine in Chin State all expose once again the regime’s agenda of ethnic cleansing.

As the regime prepares to hold elections this year, the world must remember the backdrop of the past three years. Last year, a report was published by Harvard Law School called Crimes in Myanmar.

Commissioned by some of the world’s leading jurists, including Judge Patricia Wald (US), Hon. Ganzorig Gombosuren (Mongolia), Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (UK), Judge Richard Goldstone (South Africa), and Judge Pedro Nikken (Venezuela), the report concludes that the regime’s violations of human rights may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that these should be investigated by the United Nations. As a former UN special rapporteur, I agree.

During my period as UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, I received incontrovertible evidence that forced labor, the forcible conscription of child soldiers; torture and rape as a weapon of war are widespread and systematic in Myanmar. Since that time, the evidence has grown stronger. It is claimed by the Thailand-Myanmar Border Consortium that as many as 3,500 villages have been destroyed in eastern Myanmar since 1996. Villagers have been used as human minesweepers, forced to walk through fields of landmines to clear them for the military, often resulting in loss of their limbs and sometimes their lives in the process.

I visited prisons and heard many testimonies of cruel forms of torture. Today, over 2,100 political prisoners are believed to be in Myanmar’s jails, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s democracy leader, remains under house arrest. She has spent over 14 of the past 20 years in detention.

Religious persecution is widespread. The regime is intolerant of non-Myanmarese ethnic minorities and non-Buddhist religious minorities. The predominantly Christian Chin and Kachin peoples, as well as the partly Christian Karen and Karenni, face discrimination, restriction and persecution, including the destruction of churches and crosses. Christians have been forced to tear down crosses and built Buddhist pagodas in their place, at gunpoint. The Muslim Rohingyas face similar persecution, and are denied citizenship in the country despite living in Myanmar’s northern Arakan state for generations. As a result they face unbearable restrictions on movement and marriage, and have almost no access to education and health care.

The United Nations has been documenting these crimes for many years. My fellow former rapporteur, Rajsoomah Lallah, concluded as long ago as 1996 that these abuses were “the result of policy at the highest level, entailing political and legal responsibility.” A recent General Assembly resolution urged the regime to “put an end to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”. The UN has placed Myanmar on a monitoring list for genocide, while the Genocide Risk Index lists Myanmar as one of the two top “red alert” countries for genocide, along with Sudan.

Non-Governmental Organizations have made similar assessments. Amnesty International described the violations in eastern Myanmar as crimes against humanity, while the Minority Rights Group ranks Myanmar as one of the top five countries where ethnic minorities are under threat. Freedom House describes Myanmar as “the worst of the worst”.

Human Rights Watch and the International Center for Transitional Justice draw similar conclusions.  With “elections” looming and an increase in crimes against humanity already prevalent in Than Shwe’s attempt to end all ethnic minority resistance to his rule, now is the time for concerted international action before more lives are lost.

Impunity prevails in Myanmar and no action has been taken to bring an end to these crimes. That is why we believe the United Nations has an obligation to respond to the current rapporteur’s recommendation and establish a commission of inquiry, to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity and propose action. The UN Security Council should also impose a universal arms embargo on Myanmar’s regime. The regime has been allowed to get away with these crimes for too long. The climate of impunity should not be allowed to continue unchallenged.


The writer was UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar from 1992 to 1996 and a member of the UN Sub–Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights from 2000-2009.

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