Catch Me If You Can
The news that the seven soldiers who were in prison for their role in the massacre of the Rohingya villagers in Inn Dinn Village, Rakhine State, have been freed under the military justice system, is just another example of how the rule of law simply doesn’t apply to the Myanmar military. Furthermore, despite years spouting hatespeech and inciting violence against the Rohingya and Muslims more broadly in Myanmar, the ultranationalist monk, Wirathu, has finally gone a step too far with the Myanmar government, and an arrest warrant has been issued. It seems, however, it is his criticism of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and his growing political prominence, as opposed to the hate and violence that he stirs, that has been the catalyst for charges against him. In this context, it is impossible to place faith in the Myanmar government-established ‘Independent Commission of Enquiry’ or any other domestic legal mechanism to adequately investigate the human rights abuses committed by the Myanmar military and address issues of accountability.
In April 2018 the military announced that four officers and three soldiers had been sentenced to ten years in prison for their role in the Inn Din Massacre. The Inn Din Massacre was reported on extensively by Reuters news agency, and two Myanmar journalists working on the story – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – were set up in a police sting operation to stop their reporting, charged and found guilty in a Yangon court, and their appeal was ultimately turned down by the Supreme Court. They spent 500 days in prison until they were released under a Presidential Amnesty in May 2019. It turns out that committing a massacre is less of a crime than reporting on one in Myanmar. The soldiers were quietly released in November 2018, thus meaning they spent less than half the time in prison than the two journalists. A spokesperson for the President’s office confirmed on 31 May, 2019, that they had been freed at the discretion of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. This was in accordance with the 2008 Constitution, and there is nothing in Myanmar law that this contradicts.
The Government, while seemingly unaware that the soldiers had been released, are now focussing their attention on Myanmar’s chief hate purveyor, Wirathu. A regional court in Yangon issued an arrest warrant last week, charging him for sedition under Article 124(a) of the Penal Code. Despite demonstrating immense courage by publicly stating he is ready to face any charges, he is on the run and in hiding. Wirathu has a long history of using incendiary language when describing Muslims, and has toured the country for years, preaching hate to his devoted followers. He condones violence and publicly praised the perpetrators of the 2017 assassination of U Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim legal advisor to Daw Aung Suu Kyi. The charges issued come shortly after a rally in Yangon in which he offered public support for the military, stating, “soldiers protecting the country should be worshipped like Buddha.” At another recent rally he personally criticized Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, stating, “She just dresses up like a fashionista, wears makeup and walks around in stylish, high-heeled shoes, shaking her ass at foreigners.” This is not the first time he has used vile, misogynistic language at prominent women, infamously calling the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, a “whore.” Despite his disgusting language, many in the country are questioning why he has been allowed to get away for so long with his damaging speeches that have had severe impacts on the Muslim community while publically supporting the military’s role in politics, yet once he criticizes Daw Aung Suu Kyi, the Government decides now is the time. It is the arbitrariness and timing of the charges that poses the question; Why not before?
The release of the soldiers shows how domestic legal remedies are simply not adequate to address international crimes that the Myanmar military has committed. The military is the final arbiter of justice related to any action committed by its troops. Regardless of any verdict or decision by a Myanmar court, or of any recommendations that the ICOE may come up with, the Myanmar military will absolve itself of blame. For example, a military spokesperson cited the soldiers ‘dutifulness’ and how they did not have any ‘intention to kill’ as reasons for their early release. Yet the photo of the ten Rohingya men lined up, kneeling, hands behind their heads, shows clearly that the soldiers had every intention to murder them. Furthermore, both the cases of the freed soldiers and Wirathu demonstrate that despite Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s mantra of rule of law, it is still severely lacking in Myanmar today.
Continuing to place faith and hope in the activities of these domestic accountability mechanisms, which have failed the victims and brought upon no justice and change in the behavior of the Myanmar military, will only lead to further deterioration of the conditions on the ground for persecuted religious and ethnic minorities. Moreover, it will lead to the further emboldening the military to simply carry on and continue to persecute and commit violent crimes against religious and ethnic minorities. Given these circumstances, it is vital that Myanmar be urgently referred to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council and for the international accountability mechanisms to fill the deep gap that exists in Myanmar today.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Amnesty International
By Burma Human Rights Network
By “Kaw” Customary Land Seminar
By Rohingya and Burmese Muslim leaders
By UNICEF Myanmar
By Amnesty International
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”