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We need rule of law, not mob rule

The Bago Region government deployed 100 police to Thaye Thamain village in the wake of a mob attack on June 23. (Naing Wynn Htoon / The Myanmar Times)

By Fiona Macgregor
The Myanmar Times
July 1, 2016

Now here is an interesting juxtaposition of cases: On the same day that ministers announced there would be no legal action against members of a mob that broke into a mosque and assaulted a Muslim man in Bago Region, we learned that U Gambira – a former monk and Saffron Revolution leader – is facing new charges relating to an incident in 2012 when he allegedly forced open monasteries sealed by authorities after the monk-led uprising.

The excuse given by Bago Chief Minister U Win Thein for the lack of action against the anti-Muslim lawbreakers is that the regional government is worried arrests will lead to more violence. “If we take action on people, the situation will be bad,” he told this paper.

Meanwhile, U Gambira, whose legal woes have been decried internationally as being politically motivated – and who suffers from serious mental health issues relating to his incarceration and torture as a political prisoner – faces years longer in jail.

How clearly we see that this government can be as willing to be complicit in persecution – political or religious – as its predecessor was.

There is no indication that U Gambira – also known as U Nyi Nyi Win – injured anyone. His lawyer claims the former monk simply needed a place to stay after being released from prison during a presidential amnesty. As for religious hatred, U Gambira has been one of only a few high-profile Myanmar Buddhists to publicly condemn monks’ involvement in sectarian protests.

He has been charged with “mischief” (causing monetary loss or damage) and “trespassing”. The offences carry penalties of two years and one year of imprisonment, respectively. Meanwhile, those whose rampage in Bago’s Thaye Thamain village also included ransacking the injured man’s home, destroying a Muslim cemetery and damaging a building under construction have been allowed to act with impunity.

“Impunity” is a sensitive word in this country. For those campaigning on gender issues – which is the usual focus of this column – military impunity for crimes of sexual violence is perhaps the single most emotive example of the absence of rule of law and the government’s failure to uphold the rights of women and ethnic minorities.

It is disappointing that the new administration has so far not done more to prioritise this. The continued constitutionally enshrined power of the military certainly makes it challenging to bring its members to account in civilian courts. But State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also repeatedly made clear that she sees keeping the generals on-side as more important than holding them accountable for crimes past and more recent.

With an extremely delicate peace process to negotiate, such reticence to pursue justice is disappointing but in some ways understandable. But the National League for Democracy government’s continued reluctance to uphold the basic legal rights of the country’s Muslim population against crimes by other civilians is entirely untenable.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made remarkably few clear policy pledges throughout the election campaign that swept her and the NLD to power last November.

But the one thing she was adamant about – that she repeated so often one wondered at times if she actually had any other practical solutions worked out – was the importance of “rule of law”. This was to be the foundation stone of her new democratic Myanmar.

How then to justify a situation where her ministers allow religious hate crimes to go unpunished because they claim that applying rule of law will further inflame violence?

This was the same implausible and unreasonable excuse used by the last military-backed government to justify bowing to the demands of violent extremists in Rakhine State and allowing brutal crimes there to go unpunished.

It requires us to believe that the very same security forces which have a long history of oppressing peaceful democratic protests suddenly become impotent in the face of sectarian violence.

Not only that, but it also requires us to accept that we should bow to rule of mob instead of rule of law. Yes, cases involving religious tensions in Myanmar require sensitive handling. But that does not justify the NLD abandoning its key democratic principle and its promise to the people of this country.

U Win Thein’s vow that the regional government will “supply aid to the Muslim people who suffered in the quarrel” offers neither justice nor reassurance.

More than 200 of the village’s 268 Muslim residents fled their homes after the violence. One only need look to the tens of thousands trapped in internment camps in Rakhine State for the past four years to see how government “aid” can work out for displaced Muslim people living in Myanmar.

If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is serious about addressing the religious hatred that has become a national disgrace for this country, she must ensure that her ministers publicly uphold the rule of law she has championed for so long.

To do otherwise is to abandon democracy at the first hurdle. The people of Myanmar deserve better.

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