Latest Highlight

Why the UN Sec-Gen must act now to address impunity in Burma

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been fenced into Sittwe's Muslim quarter, Aung Mingalar, since June 2012 (Lux Capio Photography)

By Guy Horton
June 1, 2014

On 14 March, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, called on the government of Burma “to fully investigate and respond to current and historical human rights violations and abuses, including crimes of sexual violence.”

The inclusiveness of this call is unprecedented.

On 26 March, the UN Human Rights Council called for an investigation into human rights violations in Arakan State.

At the end of April, the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, asserted that “elements of genocide” are being inflicted on the Rohingya. He was right so to do: the Genocide Convention specifically includes the slow, indirect methods of destruction now being inflicted on Rohingya and, arguably, some Kachin civilians.

On 15 May, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect identified Burma as being at imminent risk of mass atrocities.

The UN secretary-general’s call is, however, almost certain to be rejected by the Burmese government: it will probably prevaricate and then offer to set up its own investigation as cover to protect the impunity of real perpetrators. It knows it can play for time. Over time it will wear down the demands till a new batch of diplomats and NGOs eventually arrive on the scene. The call will then get forgotten, like many other UN exhortations.

The demand will also be rejected by other Burmese players. Aung San Suu Kyi herself, immediately after her release, dismissed the need for retributive justice and effectively ended a decade-long struggle to address impunity at a stroke. Her spokesman, in relation to the Rohingya, has even gone so far as to warn the international community, “Not to interfere in the internal affairs of Myanmar.” (Such years of “interference” were, of course, precisely what led to her release.) The former prime minister of Norway, the home of the Nobel Prize (and Telenor and Statoil,) also summarily dismissed the genocidal plight of the Rohingya as, “An internal Myanmar matter.” Welcome to the Golden Land, where globalisation and “peace” meets crony capitalism against a back drop of low intensity genocide.

Meanwhile, there is no meaningful transition to democracy. The 2010 election was rigged and the 2008 Constitution, which holds the country in a vice-like military grip, was inflicted on the people through intimidation and manipulation. There is little realistic possibility of the Constitution being meaningfully amended and little likelihood of a civilian, democratic government coming to power being able, or willing, to bring perpetrators to book.

In fact, a democratically elected government may enshrine impunity further: so systemic is Burman racism that such a government coming to power may actually inflict further persecution with the complicity of the majority population.

Little can be done through economic sanctions due to the extent of international collaboration. The latest congressionally inspired US sanctions have just been shrugged off by Naypyidaw. Sanctions cannot realistically be re-imposed and international organisations now collaborating with the military-controlled government will not support prosecution of the regime they have chosen to work with.

In conclusion, the international community’s decades-long policy of appeasement, half-hearted sanctions and collaboration, choreographed post-2011 with naïve optimism, underscored in reality by geopolitics and greed, has been disastrous for the ethnic peoples of Burma. The Burman military officer class and its associated business cronies has got everything he wanted: consolidation behind a Janus-faced civilian government; reconfiguration as a “democracy”; impunity from prosecution; wealth; legitimacy.

Reality, however, demands an honest and human response. Two hundred and sixty thousand additional Rohingya and Kachin people have been terrorised out of their homes since the “democratic transition” began. Some 800,000 Rohingya are now effectively banged up in a vast concentration camp. Hundreds of thousands have been burnt out, pillaged, plundered, murdered, raped, bombed and generally terrorised out of their homes during previous decades. Continuous since 1948, the total figure may run, as the former SLORC leader Saw Maung stated, into “millions”.

These violations, many inflicted in the service of a racial policy of “Burmanisation”, amount to crimes against humanity and, arguably, attempted genocide. It is this reality that the UN secretary-general is directly and personally confronting when he demands a “full” and, we should note, “historical investigation”.

The issue is in his hands. He is the last best hope that something will be done. He alone can present his recommendation to the Security Council without prior approval from anyone. Success is likely. China and Russia would find it difficult to veto a proposal coming from the Secretary General. Carefully prepared, with all members of the Council properly briefed, supported by overwhelming evidence and effective lobbying in New York, the case for addressing the systematic, targeted destruction of Burma’s ethnic peoples will be overwhelming.

Implementing the secretary-general’s call at the Security Council offers the only realistic way of preventing and punishing crimes against humanity. Internally, many NGOs collaborate in silence. Some journalists have been co-opted. Burman -centred, top-down academics and diplomats who avoid setting foot in the mire of internally displaced camps often downplay and misrepresent the systematic nature of the violations. The entire Burman political class, including so-called democrats, has collectively failed to show moral leadership. Even the call by the UN special envoy to end incitement of hatred has been mostly disregarded. As a result, most institutions, including the army, many Buddhists, the political class and much of the civilian population are either actively or passively complicit.

The State of Myanmar is thus now probably institutionally responsible for crimes against humanity, violations of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, and, arguably, in the case of the Rohingya, incitement of, and attempt to commit, genocide.

Effective internal jurisdiction by the Burmese government is not feasible or realistic. A Security Council Resolution, implementing the secretary-general’s call, is the only hope that crimes against humanity can be addressed, full-blown genocide prevented, and impunity challenged.

Ban Ki-moon must act to implement his own call. Not in Burma, but at the Security Council.

Guy Horton has worked on Burma and its border areas since 1998. His 2005 report, “Dying Alive” and supporting video footage, received worldwide coverage and contributed to the submission of Burma to the UN Security Council in January 2007. As a result of the report, the UN Committee on the Prevention of Genocide carried out an investigation and placed Burma/Myanmar on the Genocide Watch list.

Since 2005 Guy Horton has focussed on establishing a coalition of governments, funders, institutions and leading international lawyers with the aim of getting the violations investigated and analysed so that impunity can be addressed. He is currently a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

He was short-listed for the post of UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar 2014.

He can be contacted at:

Write A Comment

Rohingya Exodus