Six Reasons to Welcome US Support for War Crimes Probe

On 24 Aug, the United States officially confirmed that it is "exploring how best to proceed" on the initiative to push for "a properly structured international commission of inquiry that would examine allegations of serious violations of international law in Burma".

My old college mate from Mandalay University would not welcome this move. In the 1980s, he confessed to me that he had raped a young Shan village woman at gun point as she was preparing to bathe in the Salween river. He was at that time a young private on patrol in Eastern Shan State. 

In a matter-of-fact manner, he told me he was encouraged to rape the woman by his immediate superior, a battle-seasoned sergeant in his company who, I presume, had himself committed such crimes in ethnic minority territories where he had served. 

Only rapists encourage and condone other rapists.

My former friend later deserted the Tatmadaw or Burma’s armed forces. He would have been court-martialed and punished not for the rape but for desertion, if it weren’t for the fact that his uncle was one of Ne Win’s top deputies.

The Obama Administration’s bold move now to help bring rapists and others guilty of severe human rights abuses to justice has been widely hailed by leading dissidents from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to political exiles. 

The news is also highly welcome among the bulk of the Burmese population, who see the with anger and hatred of a military regime that—in the words of long-time political prisoner Win Tin, a veteran leader of the NLD—has created a “hell on earth” in Burma.

In fact, hardly ever has a Burmese government policy decision been greeted with such widespread approval by the targeted beneficiaries. Contrastingly, prolonged economic sanctions and the US engagement policy have not enjoyed universal appeal among the Burmese. Here, even people with shared visions and normative ideas differ while moralizing their own policy preferences and antagonizing those who disagree.

The opposition and the public in Burma are fully aware of the apparent hypocrisy inherent in Washington’s decision to make the Burmese military junta answerable to the international system of justice, a system which the United States itself has not agreed to abide by or observe. 

Living amongst predatory Asian neighbors, Burmese peoples know the world doesn’t exist in a state of moral purity. Pragmatism must include coming to terms with the flawed international relations and trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

Furthermore, the Burmese public and the opposition have solid reasons to overlook US double standards and welcome Washington’s decision to inject the idea of justice into its Burma policy, a move which the silent majority in Burma view as long-overdue. 

There will, of course, be a category of Burmese who oppose the US decision to move its Burma policy towards a prosecutorial path—those who committed war crimes and the leaders who tacitly condone them. 

I know my former college friend’s unsettled feeling would have been shared by my late uncle, then a young infantry officer, whose liberal use of torture during interrogation killed an ethnic minority rebel captured during a military operation which he led.

It is only human that these men—a former friend and a close relative—who had horribly wronged their fellow country-people while on active duty would find even the abstract idea unpalatable, not to mention being scared of the reality of being held accountable for their violations of the Geneva conventions.

When armed men find themselves in the service of a military leadership that more or less encourages all manner of abuses against those deemed “destructive elements”, “enemies of the State” or “insurgents” (and, by extension, their communities) all hell breaks loose. And that is what has been going on in our country since the start of military rule in 1962. A move towards ending these war crimes must be made.

It must start somewhere.

The military’s top leadership not only condones these heinous crimes against humanity but in many crucial instances they issue direct orders. Ex-Major Aung Lynn Htut, former acting Chief of Mission to the US, disclosed that Than Shwe had direct involvement in the massacre of about 80 villagers on Christie Island off the southern coast of Burma, including children and women, as well as Thai fishermen who strayed into Burma’s territorial waters (“Than Shwe 'ordered troops to execute villagers,” The Times, 7 June 2008 ).

Some of the field commanders immediately responsible for the massacre— Col Thein Zaw, for instance—have since been rewarded with ministerial and other influential posts (for instance, Minister for Electric Power I and Joint General Secretary of the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, the USDP).

A regime contact once told me that the senior military leadership actively shields military officers whose names appear in the opposition media as “human rights abusers.” 

The impunity offered by the highest level of authorities and their issuance of direct verbal orders have created an institutional culture within the Tatmadaw where both the officer corps and the rank and file feel they can do no wrong; they justify crimes against humanity in operational terms.

More than enough ink has been spilled on the subject of the junta’s war crimes and crimes against humanity, alleged or real. Over the past 10 years, numerous instances of killings, torture, rape and pillage have been exposed by a wide range of sources, including UN Human Rights Special Rapporteurs on Burma, who have no ax to grind against the Burmese generals, a Harvard Law School’s objective report entitled “Crimes in Burma”, ethnic women's organizations (for instance, the Shan Women Action Network and the Karen Women Organization), human rights documentation units of the Burmese opposition and countless Burmese Army defectors.

Curiously, some Burma experts and western diplomats, particularly in Rangoon, have questioned the timing of Washington’s war crimes move. In a recent editorial (The Washington Post, 21 Aug), misleadingly entitled “Is Burma on the verge of transformation?”, Prof David Steinberg of Georgetown University described the US decision merely as a public expression of “moral outrage.”

Critics of the US Administration's move obviously prefer that the US waits until after the Nov. 7 election to decide whether to support a UN war crimes inquiry. They argue that the move is likely to unite the Tatmadaw officer corps behind the junta senior leadership.

While these criticisms are valid on the surface, the positive aspects of the US expression of moral outrage at the Burmese regime’s intransigence, human rights atrocities and unfolding political repression far outweigh the negative ones.

At least six positive effects can be counted.

First, the US approach re-injects into Burma policy discourses both a much-needed idea of a local justice and a long-overdue sense of responsibility on the part the United Nations system.

Second, it has most certainly boosted the morale of the Burmese dissidents, both inside the country and in exile, who have become concerned that Washington, their greatest supporter since the 1988 popular uprisings, might sell the Burmese opposition down the river, precisely in the crucial hour of their need for solidarity, in the name of political pragmatism against a background of deepening Chinese involvement in Burma.

For the oppressed and the downtrodden of Burma, moral and psychological components of a policy are no less important than rational and strategic calculations. Historically and contemporaneously, it is the non-rational elements — desire for justice and accountability and outrage against exploitation and governmental crimes — that drive and sustain social movements, from abolitionist movements to violent struggles against imperialisms, from anti-dictatorship movements to the anti-apartheid struggle. 

One reason why rational minds keep getting the Burma question wrong is that they falsely believe in the a-historical separation of moral from strategic, emotional from rational. Artificial separation between brain and heart is social science’s cardinal intellectual fallacy. 

Third, the US insistence that its war crime inquiry push is consistent with its policy of strategic engagement may be read as a clear signal that Washington has come to terms with the futility of engagement with the regime’s current senior leadership. 

Those who care to look will notice that Naypyidaw, or “the Abode of Kings”, has become Than Shwe’s royal graveyard for all international “engagers” – from UN chief Ban Ki-moon and his former special envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to Prof Joseph Stiglitz and US Senator Jim Webb. 

Similarly, the characterization of Washington’s pro- UN inquiry decision as still a part of its new engagement policy on Burma can be viewed as a US commitment to remain engaged with the country’s non-state entities such as local organizations and communities, as well as the opposition groups, including the National League for Democracy and ethnic resistance organizations.

No government or local or external actor can claim to support genuine democratic change while disengaging from dissidents at best and quietly undermining them at worst. 

It is, however, dissidents—monks, civilians, student activists, labor activists, ex-army men, ethnic resistance fighters and so on—who have risked life and limb to keep their uphill battle for real change going against all odds and pressurize the paranoid regime by their mere existence and their refusal to capitulate. 

If dissidents didn’t matter why would the regime keep several thousands of these citizens locked up and push thousands more into permanent exile?

Building the capacity of Burma's so-called civil society and the presence of humanitarian INGOs are valuable and to be welcomed, but neither is a substitute for a political struggle. 

Lest we forget, it is the Burmese opposition from Suu Kyi down, not the regime proxies who masquerade themselves as “democracy strategists” or “generals’ gurus,” which sowed the seeds of empowerment initiatives long before ‘capacity building’ came in vogue with “donor” agencies. Many dissidents continue with their various in-country-under-the-radar and cross-border programs that successfully build the capacity of local communities.

Fourth, Washington’s new policy move will serve as a powerful deterrent against the sadistic social-psychological tendencies within the Tatmadaw. The possibility, however distant, of being held internationally accountable for local acts of rape, slaughter, torture and pillage is bound to have impact on the troops. Burmese language radio broadcasts from abroad amplify important policy moves internationally, and their programs are widely listened to, even within the Burmese army rank and file.

Fifth, whether or not the US decision to support an investigation of the junta’s war crimes will propel the Burmese officer corps to rally behind the senior military leadership largely depends on how the message is articulated.

My in-depth interviews with defecting military officers from the Tatmadaw, as well as my first-hand engagement with regime officials, have afforded me a glimpse of the reality on the ground- today’s officer corps, by and large, share widespread discontent, unhappiness and profound disrespect toward the regime leadership. For they too are aware of how morally bankrupt and economically corrupt their top leadership is while the rank and file members struggle to feed their army families. 

Many of the officers, including even those who have held powerful positions themselves, deeply resent the fact that the top leadership demands from them nothing less than “total obedience,” an order that they consider feudal and anachronistic. These officers keep their heads down and continue to execute orders simply out of “fear of the nearest sword.” 

The more concrete the international support for real change is in Burma, the more likely the officer corps is to switch allegiance from their reviled leadership to the oppressed masses.

This likelihood will increase when the officer corps is made aware that a war crimes inquiry on Burma is meant and designed to hold the top leadership accountable, not subordinates following orders from above.

Sixth, the possibility of a war crimes inquiry, both as an expression of moral outrage and of a strategic initiative, has already strengthened the voices of the NLD and other opposition groups that campaign against the sham election. Suu Kyi and the popular opposition have called for a categorical rejection of the “generals’ election,” which they say will not only be “unfree, unfair and non-inclusive”, but more importantly will constitutionalize the existing military rule.

Holding the command-issuing leadership accountable for their war crimes and crimes against humanity is a mark of genuine progressive change in Burma. In a one-man dictatorship, this is manageable. But as for thousands of Tatmadaw men (such as my former college friend, my late torturer relative and the likes of them), a nationwide grassroots movement, as opposed to a donor-driven project, toward truth-telling and reconciliation, whereby people come to terms with their own past, as both victims and oppressors, is long overdue.

Such a movement towards reconciliation among Burma’s communities is as crucial as a UN-led credible commission on alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. For no self-respecting and healthy society can progress without some institutionalized idea of justice and reconciliation.

Washington’s latest move to lead a push for a UN inquiry on war crimes in Than Shwe’s Burma will contribute to the strengthening of Burmese civil society. The version of civil society that is conducive to genuine democratization and citizen empowerment is sensitive to issues of justice and reconciliation, unlike the emergent version which has been primed for commercialization and privatization by regime cronies, external western business and ‘non-profit’ interests and bogus civil society actors in Burma. 

Dr Zarni ( is research fellow on Burma at the LSE Global Governance, the London School of Economics and visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

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