Burma: Is Aung San Suu Kyi or the junta on trial?
NewsNotes, July-August 2009
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial in May on charges of breaking the terms of her long house arrest. It sparked an international outcry, with growing calls to put Burma’s ruling generals themselves on trial for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. The protest apparently led the junta to extend Suu Kyi’s trial, which resumed in late June, to allow additional defense witnesses to testify. The peace prize winner, who has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years, is the world’s only Nobel laureate being held in custody.
Suu Kyi, who turned 64 on June 19, went on trial in Rangoon’s Insein Prison. Her current five-year confinement – extended by a year in 2008 – was set to expire at the end of May. To many observers the trial seemed a sham to keep her confined through national elections scheduled next year.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won elections in 1990, but the results were nullified. The country has been under military rule since 1962.
Her trial arose after John Yettaw, a 53-year-old U.S. citizen, allegedly swam past security May 3 to her home on the shore of Inya Lake in Rangoon. Suu Kyi, facing a possible five-year prison term, pleaded innocent. She said government security personnel should be held responsible for the breach.
Suu Kyi spoke to several ambassadors May 20 in the courtroom after the government allowed journalists and foreign diplomats in.
“All the paraphernalia of the courtroom is there – the judges, the prosecution, the defense,” British Ambassador Mark Canning said. “But I think this is a story where the conclusion is already scripted. I don’t have any confidence in the outcome. While the access we had today was very welcome, it doesn’t change the fundamental problem.”
Meanwhile, five international jurists have recommended that the UN Security Council establish a commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by the junta. The report examines human rights violations documented by the UN over the past 15 years: sexual violence, forced displacement, torture and extrajudicial killings. The 114-page report, Crimes in Burma, was released in late May by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.
It cites “the destruction, displacement or damage of over 3,000 ethnic nationality villages over the past 12 years – many burned to the ground. This is comparable to the number of villages estimated to have been destroyed or damaged in Darfur.”
The jurists who prepared the report include South Africa’s Richard Goldstone. He recently led a fact-finding mission to investigate “all violations of international humanitarian law” stemming from Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza that ended in January. The other jurists were from Britain, Mongolia, the U.S. and Venezuela.
The Security Council has discussed the situation in Burma, notably after the September 2007 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. In May of this year it called for the release of 2,100 political prisoners. However, it has not authorized a commission of inquiry like that requested in the report.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma from 2000 to 2008, has added his voice in support of a commission of inquiry, with a potential indictment by the International Criminal Court. Pinheiro wrote May 27 in The New York Times that UN representatives had visited Burma 37 times since 1990 in an effort to facilitate dialogue and promote human rights, but the efforts had proved fruitless.
“It is time for the United Nations to take the next logical step: The Security Council must establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and impunity in Myanmar [Burma],” Pinheiro wrote. “The Security Council took similar steps with regard to Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The situation in Myanmar is equally as critical.”
China, which seems more interested in stability than democracy in its southern neighbor, might well veto such a Security Council resolution, but the effort should be made. Pinheiro cited three important goals a commission of inquiry could accomplish:
“First, it will make the junta accountable for its crimes with a potential indictment by the International Criminal Court. Second, it will address the widespread culture of impunity in Burma. Third, it has the potential to deter future crimes against humanity in Myanmar,” he said.
Pinheiro might have added that the threat of an indictment – with solid international support behind a Security Council resolution – might deter crimes against humanity in other countries, as well.