(By SIMON ROUGHNEEN) After hearing testimony from 12 women who outlined abuses they suffered at the hands of the Burmese army and military regime, a panel of Nobel peace laureates and international jurists have added to calls for such crimes to be the subject of an international investigation.
Dr. Heisoo Shin and Prof. Vitit Muntarbhorn joined Nobel peace winners Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams in urging the UN Security Council to refer Burma to the International Criminal Court.
Earlier, Heisoo Shin said that Burma is in violation of rights under treaties it has ratified such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Burma’s army has been accused of recruiting child soldiers and using child labor by the UN and foreign governments.
The International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women of Burma in New York was organized by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Women’s League of Burma , and took place at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York on March 2. The event ran live via the Internet.
Twelve Burmese women spoke of their experiences at the hand of the junta, with some adding that the trauma caused by their suffering was exacerbated by the shame endured as they were later shunned by their community.
One woman’s story was particularly harrowing: They raped us all without a second thought, until we finally escaped their drunken grasps. News spread quickly throughout my village. We received international attention when the BBC picked up the story. I had become a headline. The shame I brought to my family, my school, my village was so difficult to bear. I wanted to forget, but no one would let me. I was caned by my teacher in front of the entire school before being expelled. Later, I was also expelled from my community for bringing shame upon it. Left without a home, a school, friends or a family, I was arrested by the police for ‘defaming’ the same soldiers who raped me.
Testimonies ranged from ordinary civilians to others targeted and assaulted due to political beliefs.
Later, another woman’s story outlined how her role in Generation 88, the student group that manned mass protests against the junta in 1988, led to her arrest, sexual abuse and life-long health complications.
She told the tribunal: I was arrested in 1989 because of my membership in Generation 88. I was 5 months pregnant when I was imprisoned and gave birth behind the prison walls. I was given no medical care before or during the birth of my son and because of the complications, I could not have any more children. When I was first detained, they would not give me any food for 12 days. I now have liver disease from the dirty water we were forced to drink.
The calls for international investigation into human rights violations in Burma are not the first. In 2009, a panel of jurists that included a former judge and two former prosecutors for the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, where notorious Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is being tried, compiled a report for the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. Using existing UN documents, “Crimes in Burma outlined what it termed epidemic levels of forced labor in the 1990s, the recruitment of tens of thousands of child soldiers, widespread sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and torture, and more than a million displaced persons.
The report urged that a Commission of Inquiry be established to investigate these and other abuses, using the same UN Security Council procedure that established the COI for Darfur and former Yugoslavia. However, the report acknowledges that Chinese and Russian opposition would likely stymie any attempt to set up a COI for Burma, even if the rest of the Security Council was willing to pursue this, and despite the existence of ample UN documentation already. The UN Security Council held its first ever debate on Burma in 2005, but little of note has happened since at that level.
Similarly, the Burma Lawyers Council ran seminars looking at the validity of an international investigation into human rights violations in Burma, which led to its chairman going into hiding in Thailand before fleeing to Sweden due to junta threats.
How calls for international justice to be applied in Burma might have an affect on domestic politics is not clear. However, they may have already had an impact on the country’s Constitution, which has a provision giving the junta immunity from prosecution.
This would not prevent them from being prosecuted under international law, however, potentially raising the stakes for the ruling generals should their long and seemingly unbreakable rule in Burma ever come to an end.
In New York, at the conclusion to the proceedings, judge Muntarbhorn lamented that what is clear from the testimony is that “democracy has been stolen from the people” in Burma.