August 17, 2018
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OPINION—Stillborn democracy

Karen people, like this woman who had just witnessed her husband being beheaded by government forces, have endured systematic human rights abuses for decades, says Guy Horton.

“The last three years saw no tangible changes, especially in the area of the rule of law and the peace process. The reform started in 2010, now we have to ask the question: 'Have we got any tangible results so far?’.” Aung San Suu Kyi, May 27, 2013.

CONTRIBUTOR—I woke up one morning at the end of January in northern Kachin State listening to the birds singing in the morning mist. The President of Burma [Myanmar] had announced on prime time TV the previous evening that a ceasefire would begin at 6.00 am that morning. His call was backed by a unanimous vote of support by the Lower House of Parliament. I believed him. A young Kachin soldier also believed him. He raised a white flag, stood up in his trench, smiled, waved and was shot dead through the head. Within hours mortar bombs were raining down. Meanwhile in New York the Secretary General of the United Nations was warmly welcoming the ceasefire.

This is the truth but it is not what people want to hear. Burma, we are told, is in the process of giving birth to democracy. The current difficulties are simply birth pangs... We must be patient and help nurse the irascible infant to maturity.

In reality the “birth pangs” currently being experienced by the Kachin and Rohingya, and suffered by most ethnic peoples for decades, are systematic human rights violations inflicted by the State, i.e. crimes against humanity. They are driven by a racial policy of Burmanisation, a blood-based ideology, which has been subjugating, assimilating and physically destroying non-Burmans and their cultures for decades. The Four Cuts Strategy is a vast crime against humanity. The military dictatorship responsible for this policy has not changed: it has simply “legitimised” and consolidated itself, and imposed a more sophisticated form of repression on lowland Burma, while continuing to target some of the other ethnic peoples with direct and indirect methods of destruction.

The current and recent violence against the Kachin, Rohingya and Muslims in general needs be seen in its true historical context. In 1948 the US military attaché cabled Washington from the Rangoon embassy and reported that “A racial war of annihilation has begun.” This war, in which the Burman dominated military has tried to Burmanize other ethnic groups is a racial, imperialist project and has been going on ever since. Its ideology is embodied in the statues of Burman warrior kings in the new capital for all to see.

The latest assaults in this 60-year-old campaign have involved the massive, systematic attack on the Kachin in January/February, and the “communal riots” inflicted on State-persecuted Rohingya. As a result of these recent attacks, well over 200,000 people have been burnt, pillaged, murdered and generally terrorised out of their homes. These events are not the birth pangs of an emerging democracy: they are targeted attacks inflicting ethnic cleansing on hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians. This is the Burmese spring.

This violence should be seen in the context of Burma's post-World War Two history. Millions of people have been violently displaced; hundreds of thousands have died; millions of homes have been destroyed. The media's ignorance and indifference, focussing, if it focuses at all, on each attack in isolation, has massively understated this vast crime. It has now compounded its failure to expose the truth by presenting the military consolidation of power in the form of an illegitimate constitution as “a Mandela-like transition” to democracy. The comparison is not just wrong: it is absurd. If what has happened in Burma was transposed to South Africa, Nelson Mandela would have volunteered to be elected to an apartheid-dominated Parliament; agreed to work under an apartheid Constitution; desired to stand for election as president of an apartheid state; refused to speak out about ethnic cleansing of say Cape coloureds; remained complicity silent while, for example, the Zulu nation was subjected to all-out military attack.

Apartheid South Africa, like the Soviet Union, fell because it was forced to change, not as a result of collaboration and naïve, international, wishful thinking. The opposite is true in Burma. The Burman military will not fall. It can afford to impose superficial changes because, in reality, it remains in total control. Its apparent relaxation of power is an expression of power. In fact, it has successfully manipulated the international community into rewarding it for deceitfully consolidating its power.

There is no reckoning. The massive amount of evidence of crimes against humanity, documented in decades-long NGO and UN Human Rights Reports and General Assembly Resolutions, is now being brushed under the carpet by an international community eager to ignore what has, and is happening, and exploit the country financially with the military-controlled government and its cronies. There is no talk of accountability. There is no talk of justice. The campaign by the NGO community for a Commission of Inquiry vanished like gossamer with the first whiff of Aung San Suu Kyi's release. This has made a complete mockery of the principle of universal jurisdiction, the decades-long work of the Office of the UN High Commission on Human Rights and its Special Rapporteurs, human rights organisations and most of all of the dead and current victims of outrageous injustice.

Hundreds of thousands of non-Burmans, and a smaller number of courageous Burman political and ex-political prisoners, have been abandoned to a culture of permanent impunity. The Burmese military is literally being allowed to get away with murder. The ritualistic, naive calls for self-investigation are met with arrogant indifference. There is no unclenched fist: to a State-terrorized Kachin or Rohingya, President Obama's image of the Burmese military as an outstretched hand is not just risible: it is incomprehensible.

It is not, however, only the present and the past which are being betrayed: so too is the future. The 2008 Constitution imposes military control in virtual perpetuity. When examined in detail, it is like a maze where every corridor narrows to a dead end. Taken as a whole it is totalitarian. There are no fairy wands wrapped up in some terminological closet.

For example, all land, air and water, and what is below and above all land, air and water, is in the hands of the military-controlled State (Article 37a). Almost no one in Burma is safe from a land grab, especially vulnerable, indigenous ethnic people. Burma is thus not just the military kleptocracy it has always been: it is now a constitutional military kleptocracy.

Moreover, the Commander-in-Chief can: proclaim a State of Emergency; dismiss the President; suspend both Houses of Parliament; dissolve the judiciary; rule supreme and rule alone. The right to inflict a coup d'état under the guise of a State of Emergency is now inscribed in the constitution (Article 40 c).

There is no civilian control of the military (Article 6 f). Parliament has a built-in military presence which makes amending the Constitution virtually impossible (Article 14). (Thein Sein just re-confirmed his opposition to such an amendment on his visit to Washington.) Ethnic minorities can be permanently outvoted (Article 9 a). Genuine Federalism, the crucial concept which could help solve Burma's problems, has been excluded.

The military-controlled government's primitive concept of citizenship remains the same: “Blood based” as Thein Sein's immigration minister, Khin Yi, opined at the International Crisis Group's recent celebration of the “new” democracy in New York.

I could go on, but the essential point is that the apologists for the democratic transition are in denial, deluded by the belief that change can miraculously take place through a process of constitutional amendments. But there is no fairy wand. Even if, for example, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected President, she would be little more than a complicit, cosmetic figurehead for the army. President Thein Sein proved the office of Presidency has no real authority when his announcement of a ceasefire in Kachin State was greeted by the army's crescendo of bombs. The Commander-in- Chief, not the President, is in control whoever that President is. That's “Constitutional”.

Meanwhile the reforms in the Burman lowland, while opening up some political space, have not led to meaningful freedom. They have often, instead, established more indirect and subtle forms of repression. Much of the media now practises self-censorship and recycles prejudice. Repressive tolerance can be a far more effective method of control than outright force. For example, at the same time the bombs were raining down in Kachin State earlier this year, the international NGOs were dutifully filling in their Memoranda of Understanding under the supervision of the military-controlled government in Naypyitaw. Their self-imposed silence while the mortar shells fell was deafening. Moreover, some of the newly “independent” Burmese journalists appear quietly complicit with the status quo: there appears to have been little investigation into the root causes of the violence inflicted on the Christian Kachin and the Muslims. Who has examined, for example, the accusation that the deaths of 13 Muslim children burnt to death in a mosque at the height of the pogroms was “the result of an electrical fault” caused by “negligent” imams? Who has investigated the land grabs taking place in the ceasefire areas? Who has interviewed terrorised Kachin civilians?

Resistance continues however. You can't fool all of the people, as they say, all of the time. Win Tin, the deputy leader of the NLD, reportedly warned Aung San Suu Kyi that she was walking into a trap when she decided to stand for election to the rigged Parliament and pledge allegiance to the military-controlled government's illegitimate 2008 Constitution. He was right. Much to the authorities' annoyance, he continues, I understand, to wear his prison uniform. This seeming servility is an act of defiance, (just as many brave Danes wore Stars of David out of solidarity for Jewish victims), against the current, collective illusion of “The Burmese Spring.” It affirms moral and spiritual freedom.

The people of Burma need real change, not the peace of appeasement and the violence of silence. They do not need naïve optimists, cynical opportunists, regime apologists, media weathercocks, one-hundred-thousand-dollar-black-tie-dinner-party-ICG-self-congratulatory plaudits. They need freedom. They need an effective investigation into crimes against humanity, as requested by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human rights, Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana. They need a genuine federal democratic Constitution designed to protect their fundamental human, economic and political rights. They need what President Kennedy called a “Peaceful Revolution of Hope”.

The alternative is more likely: a heavily armed, triumphant kleptocracy, awash with unaccounted resource money, founded on the bones of the victims of genocide and crimes against humanity, rewarded with impunity. With the aid of further Russian training and North Korean technology, such a State is likely to become in the long term a threat not just to the people of Burma, but to the region and the wider world. The gullibility of naïve optimists, the sophistry of apologists, the cynicism of opportunists and the puppet masters of Realpolitik will have birthed a new monster onto the world stage.

Guy Horton has worked on Burma (or Myanmar) since 1998. His report "Dying Alive" established the legal grounds for prosecuting the Burma military and contributed to the UN Security Council Resolution "Burma: A threat to the Peace." His web site is widely accessed. He has campaigned for an investigation by the UN into Crimes against Humanity since 2005.

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the editorial policy of Mizzima.

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