International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Does Amnesty Have A Place In Myanmar?

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?


One response to “Does Amnesty Have A Place In Myanmar?

  1. saskiadej November 24, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    I agree that this is an important time to talk about justice in Burma. Although the country has had a relatively rapid transition to democracy, there have continued to be human rights abuses, especially in Rakhine state. Since June, nearly 200 people have died and over 100,000 (mostly minority Rohingya) have been displaced due to violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. According to Human Rights Watch, some violence was carried out with the support of state security forces and local government officials ( and (

    During his visit, Obama pressed the government to end the conflict, and took time to meet with an advocate of the Rohingya community. In his speech at Yangon University, he said, “For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there’s no excuse for violence against innocent people…. National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country’s future, it’s necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence.” (

    One week earlier, Burma’s president, Thein Sein, pledged to consider new rights for the stateless Rohingya, and sent a letter to the UN that made conciliatory remarks and condemned the violence ( However, the letter gave no timeline for the conflict resolution, and failed to mention either accountability or amnesty. Furthermore, pledging to “consider” new rights is not the same as “granting” new rights, or even ensuring “equal” rights among the different ethnic communities.

    As mentioned above, in this case it seems that cooperation has helped with some of the transition. Obama’s visit and the restoration of aid likely prompted Sein’s conciliatory remarks. But will the international community ensure that conciliatory steps are actually taken? As many American and other international companies look to invest in the country, will the international community continue to maintain pressure for reforms? Obama’s remarks seem to highlight an end to violence over accountability. Does Obama’s visit and remarks imply that further reforms and an end to the conflict will be enough to satisfy the United States’ concerns? It will be interesting to see if and when the international community and the UN will follow up with President Sein’s letter.

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