Six bucks, the value of a life in Burma

htun-htun-naing-500.jpg

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.

Source: Six bucks, the value of a life in Burma

Read more: From prison to frontline (Burma Issues)

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One response to “Six bucks, the value of a life in Burma

  1. Commentary: Lawlessness, the stuff that binds in Burma

    Basil Fernando

    Feb 12, 2008 (DVB)–Last week, the Asian Human Rights Commission issued three appeals on cases of concern from Burma which illustrate the “un-rule of law” that pervades in the country.

    The first described how Paing Hpyo Aung, a boy of less than 14, was recruited into the armed forces. He was 15 when in 2005 a military tribunal sentenced him to ten years for desertion.

    He is still in jail in Arakan State, where he has just spent his 18th birthday. His parents have died, but his aunty, who only learnt of his fate recently through a former inmate, has appealed for his release.

    The second revealed that Htun Htun Naing, a convicted gambler, was taken from Insein Prison in June 2006 and sent to work as an army porter in Karenni State.

    At the end of the year a military officer came and told his family that he had died from malaria.

    They were not given death or medical certificates, but in January the next year were sent a notice that they would be paid compensation for his death: to the grand total of 7200 Kyat, which these days is worth less than six US dollars. They have requested more, so far to no avail.

    The third recounted the imprisonment of Khin Sanda Win, a young woman detained after the protests of last September and accused of carrying illegal arms.

    Although she was released from the Kyaikkasan interrogation camp in October after signing a pledge, she was rearrested in November and charged with endangering human life.

    Inexplicably, Judge U Thaung Lwin in the Kyauktada Township Court initially granted bail at an amount far beyond what should have been set then unilaterally retracted it.

    Each of these cases falls into a different conventional category of human rights discourse: child soldiers; forced labour; political prisoners. But in fact, each is bound to the other by a common cause: the utter lawlessness which pervades all aspects of Burma’s judicial and political administration.

    Last December, a unique study took up this feature of life in Burma. Describing the country as suffering from “political psychosis and legal dementia”, it approached lawlessness as the symptom of an administrative and judicial system gone mad; a condition that impinges daily not only on the lives of those persons that are the subjects of typical human rights interventions and media interest, such as political leaders and prisoners of conscience, but of all persons everywhere within its borders.

    Yet despite the extent to which in Burma transactions and abuses alike are characterised by what has been described as the “un-rule of law”, this hallmark attracts relatively little interest.

    We know that the courts are not independent, but we don’t properly understand how. We know that the police are militarised and the fire brigade has policing functions, but we have not sought to understand these things in detail.

    We know that all types of rights violations are linked to the lack of avenues for complaint and redress yet we divide them into classes that emphasise their differences rather than draw upon their similarities.

    Neither Paing Hpyo Aung’s aunty nor Htun Htun Naing’s wife are known to have received replies to their written requests for relief. Khin Sanda Win’s lawyer keeps pushing her bail petition from one court to the next with a predictable lack of success. Whether struggling to deal with a jailed boy, a dead husband or an irrational judge, the consequences are the same.

    Naturally, no one accepts such things happily. Out of sheer frustration and necessity, people take to protest in even the most adverse circumstances. Discontent wells up and spills out, as it did last year; and as the causes for such dissatisfaction persist, so too will its consequences.

    Those who challenge abuse and protest wrongdoing will find the ways and means to continue to do so, as they must. For the rest of us, the task is to understand properly why it is that they must.

    This depends first upon us acknowledging that widespread unease is born of common grievances, and second, upon our ability to comprehend and further the struggle for change not primarily in terms of discrete categories of rights but in terms of their universality.

    Basil Fernando is Executive Director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong, China.

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