Nepal and Burma delay, dilute and deny justice

The failure of both countries to address past human rights violations impedes their ability to confront the present
COMMENT
Naw Gladys Maung Maung
September 11, 2018

Nepal’s flourishing diversity of ethnicities, languages and cultures and its socio-cultural closeness to Burma made me feel at home as soon as I landed in Kathmandu recently.

Unfortunately, another similarity is that both countries have been mired in conflict and are trying to come to terms with truth and justice for past human rights violations.  There is a lot the two countries can learn from each other. 

Burma (Myanmar) was ruled by notorious military regimes for nearly half a century up until 2011, when political liberalisation began. The United Nations and others have documented widespread and systematic human rights violations by the junta, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and allegations of ethnic cleansing. 

Burma has the world’s longest-running civil wars, and has seen continuous conflict between the government and many of the country’s ethnic groups since independence in 1948. Both the military and ethnic armed groups have committed crimes including extrajudicial killings, forced displacement of entire villages, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and destruction of property, and war rape. 

The brutal suppression of pro-democracy movements, and violent crackdowns of protests were common throughout this period of military rule from 1962 to 2011, resulting in thousands of political prisoners. The atrocities against ethnic minority groups continue to this day, with the violations against Rohingya people getting the most international attention at the moment. 

In comparison, Nepal’s conflict lasted a shorter period between 1996-2006 when most of the rights violations occurred. The violations of human rights during conflicts in both countries are so numerous and egregious that the normal justice system is not able to provide adequate response, which is why transitional justice mechnisms are needed.  

After 2011 Burma’s military rule was replaced by a military-backed civilian leadership. A comprehensive peace process with ethnic armed groups brought bilateral ceasefires moving up to a Nationwide Ceasefire in October 2015. The current National League for Democracy (NLD) government, elected in a landslide in 2015, has continued negotiations between government, military, ethnic armed groups and political parties. Even so, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has been pushing Burma to provide redress to political prisoners and bring victim experiences into the national dialogue.

However, the process has been overshadowed by the accusations of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim population by the military which has forced some 700,000 refugees to flee to neighbouring countries. A UN report on 24 August was the strongest condemnation yet and called for top military figures to be investigated for genocide in Rakhine State and crimes against humanity in other areas. It recommended that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

Predictably, Burma’s rulers rejected the report. Then last week, a Rangoon court sentenced two Reuters reporters to seven years in prison for violating a state secrets act while investigating the atrocities against the Rohingya. Domestic and international rights have condemned it as a crushing blow to freedom of the press and another setback for democracy.

Nepal’s own 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement laid down the steps to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission on Investigation of Disappeared Persons which were finally established in 2015. Even so, they are criticised for allowing the government to grant amnesty to perpetrators, they fail to meet international standards and are unconstitutional. The government has extended their mandates for the second time in February, but has not provided them enough technical and financial support. 

Both Nepal and Burma currently face the challenge of a lack of commitment and delays about the transitional justice process because of the lack of political will to acknowledge the past and provide relief to victims. 

In Burma, the military did not want to uncover the wrongdoings of its personnel and discussion of massive human rights violations has been largelyunderstood to be off the table during the transition and the peace process. This is because the current government says it is worried that raking up the past might reopen old wounds and further deepen divisions. Burma’s hybrid political structure still equips the military with greater power and influence. This failure to address transitional justice to confront past violations is now impeding the ability to confront the present.  

A similar narrative is being put out in Nepal as well, and this is largely the reason why the perpetrators of conflict-era violations keep getting amnesty without serving actual jail time or prosecution. Since former enemies are now the state, it is in their interest delay, dilute and deny justice. Transitional justice is said to impede reconciliation, and perpetrators argue they were just following orders. 

Victims, their families, and human rights activists want them to be held to account no matter what. The Nepal government recently began consultations on amendments to the two transitional justice mechanisms. While this shows the country may be going in the right direction, the notion that seeking justice impedes reconciliation is still widespread.

Justice and reconciliation should not be trade-offs, nor are they mutually exclusive. After periods of repression and conflict, burying the past for the sake of peace might seem desirable but is not  sustainable in the long run. Transitional justice does not merely mean prosecution or reopening old wounds, it holds perpetrators to account and gives a change for them to offer apologies and acknowledgment. Nepal and Burma must remember that addressing past violations and recognising victims as rights-holders, fosters civic trust and the rule of law while promoting reconciliation. 

Naw Gladys Maung Maung is a political science student from Burma who was recently in Nepal.

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