For anyone grappling with the thorny problem of assigning a financial value to human life, help is at hand. Insurance companies of the world, rejoice: Burma’s Defense Ministry has definitively established that one life is worth a bit less than six US dollars.
In November 2006 a low-ranking army officer came to the suburban Rangoon home of a young mother. He told her that her husband had died of malaria in a mountainous border region some three months before, while serving an infantry battalion.
How Htun Htun Naing [above] got there in the first place is unclear.
He was not a soldier. The 31-year-old had been arrested and imprisoned for gambling. Apparently he had been taken from jail and sent to carry materials for the military in the rugged war-ravaged east.
The government of Burma openly uses prisoners on labor projects. Home Ministry publications include accounts and photographs of farms and quarries where the workforce consists of inmates. Corrections Department signboards dot roads around the countryside and criminal sentences are typically for rigorous imprisonment.
However, the government has persistently denied that it uses convicts as army porters, despite numerous reports to the contrary. Human rights defenders claim that the number of prisoners used to carry supplies has increased in recent years as the number of local villagers forcibly conscripted to work has decreased. The videotaped testimonies and wounds of escaped inmates are compelling evidence.
In any event, the officer visiting Htun Htun Naing’s family advised them that they should go to the concerned battalion’s headquarters to look into the matter. He collected some personal documents with which to process the case but left them with nothing: neither a doctor’s report nor a medical certificate to verify his account.
Htun Htun Naing’s wife, struggling to raise her three small children, was in no position to travel to an army camp halfway across the country. She continued her work as usual and waited to hear more.
So it was until the following year, when the family received a letter. The form inside, dated Jan. 30 and issued by the ministry accounts office, acknowledged the death/injury of U Htun Htun Naing, son of U Myint Shwe, in the service of Infantry Battalion 250 based at Loikaw. It informed the family that in accordance with an instruction from operation headquarters, the amount of 7,200 kyat had been cleared for payment as compensation by the Myanmar Economic Bank within the financial year.
How did the ministry do its math? No criteria were given, nor supporting documents affixed. The family still has not received anything to prove that Htun Htun Naing really died as they have been told, let alone details of how he ended up working for IB 250 in the first place. All they have is this scrap of paper granting them a miserable 7,200 kyat; around US$5.75 at the current exchange rate.
Their experience is very far removed from the global standards on satisfactory redress for victims of rights abuses.
According to the United Nations principles on remedies and reparations, adopted by the General Assembly in 2005, these should be “adequate, effective, prompt and appropriate.” Compensation should be “proportional to the gravity of the … harm suffered.”
Gabriela Echeverria, a legal adviser to the group REDRESS, has written that the principles “have been used as the basis for new remedies in national and international fora” and have become “a standard for governments when implementing administrative measures.”
While this may be true of some countries in Europe, and perhaps increasingly in the Americas, the notion that persons who have suffered some wrongdoing at the hands of the state deserve appropriate recompense, in addition to other remedies, is still remote to most parts of Asia.
The government of Thailand offered the equivalent of around US$7,500 to each of the families of 92 dead and missing at the hands of the army after the infamous Tak Bai incident of 2004; not one officer has ever been prosecuted, despite overwhelming evidence of systemic negligence.
In Nepal, the maximum amount that can be awarded to a torture victim is a bit over US$1,000, no matter how serious the injuries suffered. And whereas the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka had previously ordered that victims of torture there be paid highly, in recent years it has reduced the sums ordered to barely a few hundred dollars.
There are of course many opinions about the meaning of words like “adequate” and “appropriate” when it comes to the pecuniary losses of human rights abuse victims, but by any standards the payments to those in Asia are paltry at best, and the payments to those in Burma, if forthcoming at all, are evidently intended only to add insult to injury.
Htun Htun Naing’s family has made a complaint anyhow. They have not dared to ask for justice or even more details of how he died. Just for a review of the case and a little more money, please. So far they have heard nothing. There seems little chance that they will. They may not have proof of his death, but they have ample proof that in Burma life really is cheap; perhaps even more so than anyone had imagined.
Read more: From prison to frontline (Burma Issues)