Opinion: a real chance to stop murder, torture and organised sexual violence in Burma

On 29 November 2003, a woman’s body was discovered near a farm by her husband and other people from her village. She was 20 years of age and her name was Naang Sa. She and her husband Zaai Leng had been approached, three days before, by 40 soldiers from the Burmese Army. Zaai Leng was tied up and Naang Sa was gang raped. The soldiers took her back to their base and her dead body was left at an unknown time during those three days, completely unconcealed, to be found by those who loved her.

Events such as these are not unusual in Burma. Numerous United Nations reports have expressed concern about high numbers of rapes of women by the army in Burma since at least 1996. The number of reports that reach the UN are, almost certainly, gross underestimates. The lack of effort to conceal rapes or the bodies of victims is a regular feature of such cases that underlines a culture of impunity for soldiers in a country under military rule.

The UN’s Torture Rapporteur recorded in 2006,

“Women and girls are subjected to violence by soldiers especially sexual violence as “punishment” for allegedly supporting ethnic armed groups. The authorities sanction violence against women and girls committed by military officers, including torture as a means of terrorising and subjugating the population.”

This has been brought to the attention of Burma’s military government consistently since 2002 but United Nations representatives have found, at best, shrugging indifference from the government and often active attempts to prevent impartial investigation.

The widespread abuse of civilians by their own country’s government (or its soldiers or agents) is a crime against humanity under international law. Unfortunately, the rape of women is but one strand of human rights abuses in Burma.

Burma gained independence in the 1947 and enjoyed parliamentary government, albeit with inter-ethnic and Communist inspired armed conflict occurring, until 1962 when General Ne Win staged a coup that begun a continuous period of rule by force. Ne Win‘s regime sought to control rural areas by destroying farms and villages, killing thousands of civilians. Student protests were harshly suppressed and the once prosperous economy collapsed.

In 1988, further protests against military rule led to 3000 people being killed and fighting between the army and rebels groups has continued since then creating 100,000s of refugees. The regime has forced people away from their home areas and used murder and torture, as well as sexual violence, as tools of oppression on a widespread scale and with an ingrained culture of impunity for those who commit such crimes.

In 1998, a UN Special Rapporteur wrote,

“These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years to suggest that they are more simply isolated or the acts of individual misbehaviour by middle and lower-rank officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level, entailing political and legal responsibility.”

More recently, you may recall the violent suppression in 2007 of Buddhist monks who began peaceful protests against military rule.

The United Nations and the European Union have published numerous reports documenting these crimes against humanity. President Obama has indicated that the United States is willing to take more decisive action against Burma.

There are two recent developments that deserve to be noted. The first is the publication of the report “Crimes in Burma” by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The report was commissioned by five of the world’s leading jurists from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. The Harvard Report took as its source material not any and every allegation, but only those allegations documented and actually found to have occurred in United Nations investigations and reports.

The 102-page report surveys the evidence and the legal framework (the established elements of crime against humanity) and concludes that there is undoubtedly a strong prima facie case for Burma’s military leaders to answer.

The report also notes the glaring disparity between the international community’s response to these cases and how it has acted in relation to similar crimes in other countries.

The established response to a prima facie case of crimes against humanity is an international judicial process. This is what the international community has done in recent years with regard to the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur. Abuses of human rights in Burma are comparable to all three of those countries. An international judicial process establishes the truth and brings some of the guilty people to justice. Armed with those precedents for action, the Harvard Report calls for an international judicial commission of inquiry for Burma. If we fail to set up such a process, it is likely that abuses of human rights will continue for decades to come.

Secondly, during August, the military regime announced new elections but 25% of the seats in parliament will be reserved for the military, numerous democratic parties including the movements led by Aung San Suu Kyi have been barred from even taking part and the leading General announced on 31 August that he will not relinquish power whatever the election result. There is every chance that the election period and its aftermath will unleash a heightening of violence and oppression by the regime.

An Emergency Motion has been put to the Liberal Democrat Conference by me and Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (who prosecuted Milosevic at the Hague) calling for urgent action. We want the British government, and the European Union of which we are also citizens, to use all means at its disposal to begin an international judicial process as called for by the Harvard Report to end the murder and torture of innocent people.

We need delegates to the Conference to vote for this motion in the Emergency Motions Ballot and, if we get through the ballot, to give it your support by voting for it in the Conference Hall and making it the official policy of our party in government.

If you would like to talk to Sir Geoffrey or myself about the motion or the situation in Burma generally call me on 07967 136099.

Antony Hook was a candidate for the European Parliament in 2009.

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This entry was posted in Conference and Op-eds.


  • Andrew Suffield 17th Sep '10 - 9:30pm

    I don’t see where there’s “a real chance”. The proposal appears to be to hope that somebody in the government has some ideas.

  • How about just trying to convince your coalition partners not to be so ideological, and sign the EU directive on human trafficking, which they are refusing to do. That would be a good start.

  • Andrew, no, the proposal (as per the third paragraph) from the bottom is to apply the recommendations of the Harvard Report.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Sep '10 - 11:31pm

    It looks to me more like asking the government to “use all means at its disposal”, which would be what, exactly?

    I don’t think “do something, I don’t know what” is a very good proposal or a message you can campaign on. If you have some specific things which the government can (legally, financially, and ethically) do, then maybe we can make some progress. If you’re just hoping that they have some ideas, then this is just another headline.

  • anyone in british politics bothered about the western backed tyranny of rwandas paul kagame? recent joke elections where true opposition figures were banned and recent revelations about massacres in the eastern congo. labours kate hoey who supports human rights in certain countries is strangely silent. i don’t hear much from libdems either. i don’t expect anything from the tories on human rights so they don’t count.

  • Andrew,

    With respect, I think it is legitimate for a political party to identify foreign policy objectives without detailed exposition of the steps professional diplomats will take to achieve those objectives.

    But the phrase you pick upon is a fairly standard expression in foreign policy. In this case I would expect the UK to work towards achieving the action called for in the Harvard Report by, among other things,:

    1. Sponsoring a Security Council Resolution. That is the crucial step to a Commission of Inquiry being set up.
    2. British Ministers, ambassadors, High Commissioners around the world encouraging other states to support such a Resolution as they do with all the foreign policy objectives we want to achieve (very often by offering quid pro quo support for certain objectives of other countries).
    3. Support (i.e. vote for) a decision in the Council of Ministers for the EU to formally endorse this position (so all European government support it in the UNSC) and the European Diplmatics Corps (the External Action Service) to be directed to build support for it too.
    4. Promote a resolution at the next Commonwealth Summit with a view to all Commonwealth governments giving it support in the UNSC.

    Basically, do all that was done in relation to the Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, and other states.

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