Sons of sorrow

sons of sorrow

Accompanying all the latest to-do over whether or not Burma’s regime is trying to obtain nuclear weapons has been the usual background noise about the menace of its conventional armed forces. Foreign pages’ editors excitedly describe the army as having half a million troops, as if they are all poised on the border to spill over into neighboring territories at a moment’s notice.

Nobody knows the real size or capability of the army in Burma, although that doesn’t stop analysts the world over from sifting through secondhand sources for something with which to make a claim about this or that. Not even the army itself is likely to know precisely how many personnel it actually has, given that unit commanders play with numbers to satisfy the requirements of their superiors.

But one thing we do know is that not all of these soldiers are adults. Last week a Thailand-based group released a new report on the recruitment of children to the Burma army. The report, entitled “Child soldiers, Burma’s sons of sorrow,” explores government claims to be addressing the problem of child soldiers, and presents evidence to the contrary. Continue reading

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Six men, two years, Hinthada

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Two years ago a court in Burma sentenced five farmers to four years’ jail for allegedly causing a public disturbance; a sixth man received eight years for two counts of the same offence. Tomorrow, on July 24, the five will have served half of their terms. In all likelihood, they will have to serve the other half before being released.

The six were imprisoned because they had the audacity to talk about human rights and tried to help people where they lived who had problems with the local authorities.

In April 2007, a group of thugs under orders from the village council attacked Ko Myint Naing, the one who was sentenced to eight years. He suffered serious injuries and was hospitalized in Rangoon. He responded by laying charges against the attackers. After that, he and the five farmers – U Win, Ko Kyaw Lwin, U Myint [above left], U Hla Shein [above right] and U Mya Sein – were accused of stirring up trouble and jailed.

A lot has happened since. The men were in prison throughout the historic monk-led protests of August and September 2007. They were in prison during Cyclone Nargis and the farcical constitutional referendum of May 2008. They have been in prison through two birthdays of their children, two harvests of wet season paddies, two of dry. They will probably still be in prison when some kind of general election is called next year, and when a parliament of sorts sits for the first time in over two decades after that.

All of these things would have happened with or without the six being behind bars. Their captivity is immaterial to the state as a whole. None are prominent political activists whose lives are celebrated abroad and whose circumstances provoke serious responses from international agencies. None would have made a difference at a national level. They were neighborhood activists, concerned with the things that mattered in the lives of people around them.

It is for precisely this reason that their stories deserve to be recalled and their names known. Continue reading

Ban’s visit a watershed moment

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Political analysts and international journalists have criticized the visit of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Burma last week. Various observers have described it as ill-advised and fruitless. Some have remarked that Ban risked his reputation to achieve nothing.

What was striking about his visit was the level of negativity that accompanied it from the moment it was announced, not only among overseas pundits but also among people in Burma and political opponents of the military regime abroad.

Most speakers on Burmese radio programs and writers of commentary on news websites and blogs predicted that the generals would thumb their noses at the U.N. secretary-general irrespective of whether he was sitting in New York or in front of them. As expected, he made no discernible progress on any substantive issues and was unable to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.

Perhaps at no other time in the last two decades have people been so pessimistic about the role of the United Nations in pressing for political change in Burma. This is in stark contrast to a few years ago, when exiles and many in the country nursed ridiculously high hopes that the international community could somehow sweep in and clear things up if only enough important people would take an interest.

For this reason, Ban’s trip is a watershed moment. Thanks to him, most folks now understand that the United Nations isn’t going to appear magically and hold the regime to account for its multifarious wrongs.

But this needn’t give rise to the high level of cynicism about the U.N. failure to promote change in Burma. The current stasis is as much a result of domestic as it is international affairs, and everyone shares some responsibility for it, even if many people would prefer to just blame Ban and the body that he represents. Continue reading

Torture still a dirty secret in Thailand

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(การทรมานยังเป็นความลับที่สกปรกในเมืองไทย)

A little over a week ago, the Bangkok Post reported that a special inquiry unit under Thailand’s Justice Ministry had asked the public prosecutor to lodge charges against six police officers for allegedly torturing a man in their custody.

The police in Ayutthaya, near Bangkok, hooded Ekkawat Srimanta and beat him all over his body to force him to confess to a robbery that he did not commit. Then they repeatedly electrocuted his genitals and groin.

Unlike many victims of police torture in Thailand, Ekkawat survived. And unlike most, he was released shortly afterward and admitted to hospital. The next day, photographs of his damaged body were published in major dailies. Senior officers rushed to his bedside, pretended that they cared if he lived or died, and made phony promises to look into things.

All that was five years ago. What happened since demonstrates the utter failure not only of the government of Thailand but also of its society to come to terms with the blight of torture, or do anything much about it. Continue reading

Politics, not law, will determine Suu Kyi’s fate

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At a meeting of lawyers in Hong Kong this April, Aitzaz Ahsan described how as counsel for the Chief Justice of Pakistan in the petition against his unconstitutional removal from office during 2007, neither the president nor any other senior official had even read the charges brought against the judge, which they had signed. Had they done so, they would have noticed that the charge sheet was full of blank paragraphs with the word “deleted” alongside. And anybody looking more closely should also have found that the petitioner had not even presided over an appeal in which he was accused of having struck a deal with one of the parties; yet a number of the judges trying him had.

Although the charges against the Chief Justice of Pakistan were framed in legal terms, neither their factual accuracy nor formal correctness was supposed to have mattered. Politics and military power, not laws and civilian authority, were meant to have determined the judge’s fate. Yet to his credit, as well as to that of his advocate, the Supreme Court bench and the legal community of Pakistan, the court reinstated the judge despite the wishes of a dictator.

The case now running against Burma’s democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is of the same type. Continue reading

Questions, not dismay, over Tak Bai findings

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It took five years for a court in Songkhla, southern Thailand, to hold an inquest into the deaths of 78 men after they were detained along with over 1,000 others outside the Tak Bai police station in October 2004. But for all the time spent and witnesses heard, the findings [in English] handed down on May 29 obscured as much as they revealed.

By law, the inquest was supposed to identify who died, where, when, how, why and thanks to whom. The judges omitted most of what the court was told about the how and why, and failed to name any specific responsible persons in their closing remarks.

They also tried to excuse those involved by pointing out that they had been performing their duties under difficult circumstances, even though this is a matter for a trial court to consider, not one for a post mortem inquiry.

While the court failed to do the minimum expected of it under law, it could not deny that the 78 men had all suffocated to death in trucks en route to an army camp. That the men were stacked onto one another like pigs being taken to slaughter slipped from the narrative, but that they were in military custody and died of unnatural causes is now on the judicial record. Continue reading

Thailand’s anti-human rights commission

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Despite concerns from human rights defenders at home and abroad, Thailand’s upper house on May 1 approved the seven nominees for the country’s National Human Rights Commission. The seven consist of a top cop, a judicial administrator, a civil servant, an industrialist, an academic, a former senator and a road safety advocate.

Only the ex-senator and academic have experience and knowledge to warrant their appointments, although critics observe that both also are tainted by their links with an army-installed government after the 2006 coup. The civil servant is a social worker who has some idea about children’s and women’s rights. The other four have no clue.

The policeman says that due process in some cases should be balanced with crime control, like in the country’s restive south. As a representative of Thailand’s preeminent agency for human rights abuse, he is now situated to block inquiries into security forces that abduct, torture and kill people on this pretext, be they near the Malaysian border or anywhere else.

The court administrator counts his human rights experience as having been involved in the drafting of a number of constitutions, including a couple written for the benefit of military dictators. He also reckons that he contributed to verdicts favorable to rights, although this is an odd and unsupportable claim from someone whose role is not supposed to include telling judges how to decide cases.

The road safety guy seems unaware that the body to which he has been appointed is a human rights commission, not a rights and duties commission, as he has so far been unable to talk about one without remarking on the other.

The businessman describes human rights as a tool for international groups to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, such as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency backing the spiritual group Falun Gong to cause trouble for China. He also says that other countries are violating the rights of Burma’s military regime by imposing sanctions. And that’s not even the start of it.

A more ugly lot of rights commissioners would be hard to find. But now they’re in, can anything be done to get them out again? Or is Thailand saddled with an anti-human rights commission for the next six years? Continue reading