Does Amnesty Have A Place In Myanmar?
November 19, 2012
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With Barack Obama making the first presidential trip to Myanmar, I think think the time is right to talk about transitional justice in that country. Though Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, there have been attempts by other countries to refer its leaders to the Court for crimes against humanity (noticeably, the EU called for a referral after leaders blocked foreign aid for a cyclone that had killed over 75,000 people), and the government has been widely seen over the past several decades as extremely oppressive and insensitive to human rights. Among the many reported abuses are systematic rapes in the military, the facilitation of widespread human trafficking, and violence against political opposition, all of which contribute to the UN referring to the situation as a “systematic [violation] of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
However, as indicated in Obama’s visit, the country is currently undergoing a relatively rapid transition to democracy. Over the past two years, President Thein Sein has taken the reigns of the country and has somewhat facilitated a shift in control from the military junta to an “army-managed, quasi-democracy.” Indeed, Obama focused his visit on placing pressure on the country to carry out full democratic reforms—sanctions on most imports from Myanmar were lifted and it was announced a USAID program for Myanmar would resume its assistance. He did so while making it clear that the country is far from being a true democracy and is currently in the shadow of an abusive military regime.
Although Myanmar’s government seems to be reforming itself and facilitating the country’s own transition (before Obama’s visit, about 500 prisoners were given amnesty), how will the country reconcile with the regime’s extremely serious past abuses that amount to crimes against humanity? Of course, other countries have managed to do well while having political leaders who held ties to abusive regimes, but are trials a necessary first step? Is accountability essential for transition in Myanmar’s case? Even if there will inevitably be a push back against the past regime, is it not true that continuing with cooperation (and even amnesty) is the best way for the government to peacefully continue the transition to democracy?