Bangkok – An international campaign seeking a war crimes inquiry into the alleged systematic abuses by Burma’s military regime finally has a strong ally in U.S. President Barack Obama.
Washington revealed Tuesday that the Obama administration is throwing its weight behind the creation of a U.N. commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes, reports the ‘Washington Post’ newspaper. “(It is) a sign of a tougher U.S. policy against a regime long accused of murdering and raping its political foes,” it commented.
“What is important here is that this is not aimed at the people of Burma but at its leadership, particularly (Senior Gen.) Than Shwe,” a senior administration official was quoted as having told the U.S. daily, referring to Burma’s 77-year-old strongman.
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The regime in Burma, also known as Myanmar, is preparing to hold the country’s first general election in 20 years on Nov. 7, in an attempt to win political legitimacy and deflect criticism of its oppressive rule.
The Obama administration’s tougher stance against Burma, whose regime has targeted ethnic minorities along the borders of the South-east Asian nation, comes more than two weeks after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators made a similar case in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“While your administration continues along the path of sanctions and pragmatic engagement with Burma, we believe that such a commission will help convince Burma’s military regime that we are serious about our commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law for the people of Burma,” stated the letter signed by 32 senators from the Republican and Democratic parties.
Burmese activists welcome Washington’s stance. “This is the right and timely action by the Obama administration in response to the power-thirsty and brutal generals in Naypidaw,” says Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington DC-based lobby. “(They) are expecting to delete their dirty crimes by putting a sham constitution into effect through a sham election.”
Naypidaw, the new capital located in central Burma, is where the new parliament is being built. The junta nullified the results of the last parliamentary election in 1990, denying the party of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi the right to govern.
Washington’s position is expected to be backed by Australia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which have endorsed a call by U.N. human rights investigator for Burma Tomas Ojea Qunitana for the world body to appoint an inquiry panel into war crimes in Burma. Quintana made his views known in March while presenting a scathing 30-page report on Burma to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Quintana’s push added to an appeal for a U.N. inquiry made in a 2009 report done by the International Human Rights Clinic at the law school of the U.S.-based Harvard University.
More than 3,000 villages that were home to Burma’s ethnic minorities have been burnt to the ground by the military regime, said that report by international jurists from Britain, Mongolia, South Africa, the United States and Venezuela. “The world cannot wait while the military regime continues its atrocities against the people of Burma.”
The calls for a U.N. inquiry are significant given that sanctions and international pressure, whether by Asian governments or those in Europe or the United States, have not made much headway in pushing Burma’s generals toward political reform.
Looking into the rights abuses in Burma in the context of war crimes makes these an international concern, denting the argument by the regime and its allies that they are internal matters.
It also highlights the learning curve of 10 years that it has taken activists among Burma’s ethnic minorities and the majority Burman community to hold the junta accountable for war crimes.
“This change is a significant landmark,” says Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network On Burma (ALTSEAN), a human rights watchdog. “South-east Asian governments will have to acknowledge and understand that these are serious international crimes being committed. They cannot be described any more as domestic affairs not subject to international scrutiny.”
Calls for a war crimes inquiry have gathered pace only in the past three years, she told IPS. “Till then, most people among the Burmese human rights movement had not realised that the systematic nature of the violations were war crimes.”
“The Burmese and the ethnic minorities had seen the violations happening in their midst as normal part of Burmese life because they had been going on for so long,” Stothard added. “Now they are not afraid to publicly acknowledge and name the violations as war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
A 2002 report by women in the ethnic Shan minority in north-eastern Burma, where the military is locked in a separatist battle with Shan rebels, helped pave the way for this shift in describing the scale of violence in Burma.
‘Licence to Rape’, by the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), exposed in chilling detail the Burmese military’s use of rape as a weapon of war in its operations in Shan villages.
“What matters for us is there has to be change on the ground,” Hseng Noung, a SWAN founder, told IPS. “The day-to- day life that women in the Shan state face today, the fear of abuse, is still the same as they faced when we researched ‘Licence to Rape’.”
But while Washington’s stamp on a U.N. war crimes inquiry may raise hopes, diplomats urge caution given the role that power politics plays in decisions by the world body.
“The U.S. must know that China is going to block this effort (at the United Nations),” a European diplomat who covers Burma said on condition of anonymity. “It may be counterproductive in the broader scheme of things, because it will drive the Burmese closer to the Chinese.”
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