Burma and North Korea together caused a flurry of excitement a few days ago when they renewed diplomatic relations after a quarter-century hiatus. Government officials, newspaper editorialists and human rights advocates around the world rushed to iterate prosaic remarks and bang drums about the two “outposts of tyranny.”
Why? Comparing Burma with North Korea just because the two are run by uncompromising military regimes has little merit. It does nothing to explain the real problems in either country. If anything, it is inimical to the prospects for meaningful change in both.
Seen with reference to human rights and the rule of law across Asia, Burma is not exceptional. On the contrary, it in many ways resembles its close neighbors, including Thailand. The differences that exist in Burma are mostly ones of degree, not kind.
What do Burma and Thailand have in common? In both countries, people are routinely tortured and killed in police custody. In both, the highest frequency of abuse occurs during ordinary criminal inquiries. In both, procedures are ignored or subverted and records falsified. Both states admit the possibility of complaints against officials, and advertise to the public to whom and where they can complain.
But in both, the chances of success are extremely slim. In neither has the government complied with international obligations to introduce effective laws and institutions to protect victims. In both, complainants are themselves threatened and coerced. In both, they face unsympathetic courts and may find themselves accused of criminal defamation or some other offence, instead of the perpetrators. In short, in both Thailand and Burma the police and other state officials can get away with murder.
Here are some recent examples: The mother of Ko Aung Myint Oo withdrew a complaint against police officers in Burma who assaulted her son over an outstanding gambling warrant in 2006 after she was forced to strike a deal with one of the perpetrators. Not long after, Ekkawat Srimanta withdrew a case against police who tortured him some two years before in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok, on a criminal accusation. A police officer from the same station has sued the mother of another victim over a news article reporting her son’s alleged torture. She now faces a possible two-year jail term; the tortured young man remains in jail, the officer is still on duty.
Similarly, Daw Khin Win was sued by local authorities in Burma for complaining about their criminal activities, and imprisoned late last year for her trouble. In the north of the country, special drug squad police also in 2006 illegally arrested and savagely assaulted Maung Ne Zaw, who died in custody; they harassed his mother until she left the country, her attempts to lodge a complaint unsuccessful. Likewise, police in Kalasin Province, northeastern Thailand, earlier tortured and murdered 17-year-old Kietisak Thitboonkrong, whom they had accused of stealing motorcycles; his mother has fought to expose the perpetrators for almost three years, against intense fear and official indifference. Not one has been brought before a court; they all continue at their posts and the prime suspect has been promoted.
These are not random stories. They are indicative of the heavy institutional obstacles to due process and active participation in social life that exist equally in Thailand and Burma. The same types of obstacles can be found in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. People in these countries, among others, daily suffer systemic brutality and neglect; they are not averse to making complaints and demanding justice, but the message that they uniformly receive is that there is no point in complaining, unless they wish to suffer the consequences. It is this that distinguishes societies where human dignity is safeguarded and those where it is denied.
There is no advantage to be had in trite contrasts between “authoritarian” and “democratic” countries. Many Asian governments with democratic characteristics have strongly authoritarian tendencies. Shifts from naked authoritarianism to formal democracy have not been matched by substantially improved protection of human rights. Excessive attention to the ballot box has been followed by insufficient observance of the need for functioning institutions.
At the same time, authoritarian governments deliberately misuse democratic rhetoric: the current prime ministers of both Thailand and Burma exhort government officials and the general public alike to uphold the rule of law, although there are no grounds upon which either of them can lay claim to the notion.
Changes in government do not necessarily bring about corresponding changes to protect human rights. This is manifest throughout Asia. Anyone concerned to see Burma freed from army control would do better to study its institutions and their mechanics in detail rather than drawing superfluous comparisons to the governments of countries with which it has little in common.
The world is today littered with the casualties of generic prescriptions for the presumed ailments of complicated societies. Burma should not be made another victim. Those who invoke democracy and human rights for its liberation should first study what is really going on there before figuring out what needs to be done about it. After that, if they put Burma in any basket it will be the one with Thailand, not North Korea.