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Burma: Justice for All Print E-mail

A protester in Paris holds up a portrait of Burma's Suu Kyi
Democracy's martyr
A protester in Paris holds up a portrait of Burma's Suu Kyi

Last week, two famous defendants — one despised, the other adored — appeared in courts over 5,000 miles apart. Charles Taylor, Liberia's former President, is on trial in the Hague for murder, rape, torture and other war crimes allegedly committed during the decade-long conflict in Sierra Leone. Taylor used his first appearance on the stand to dismiss the charges as "disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumors." (Read "'Lies and Rumors': Liberia's Charles Taylor on the Stand.")

Meanwhile, and much more convincingly, Aung San Suu Kyi was declaring her innocence before a court in Rangoon — alas, in vain. On Aug. 11, the iconic and much admired democracy leader was found guilty of violating the terms of her house arrest, a verdict that everyone, including Suu Kyi herself, had predicted. Also predictable was the apparent imperviousness of the ruling Burmese junta to the global outrage it generated by putting her under house arrest for another 18 months just as her last spell in detention was expiring. U.S. President Barack Obama called it "unjust." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called it "monstrous." Out of sheer frustration, some Burmese will turn to the Hague for solace. Taylor is the first African head of state to face an international war-crimes tribunal. Could junta chief General Than Shwe be the first Asian? (Read "Burma Court Finds Aung San Suu Kyi Guilty.")

The prospect is admittedly remote. But a renewed focus on military atrocities in Burma could increase pressure on the regime and re-energize Burma's embattled democracy movement in the wake of the gloomy Suu Kyi verdict. A compelling case for a Burmese war-crimes trial is made in a May 2009 report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. Its authors, who include one former judge and two former prosecutors from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, detail systematic and widespread atrocities committed in Burma in recent years: killings, torture, rape, "epidemic levels" of forced labor, a million people homeless, the recruitment of thousands of child soldiers and the displacement or destruction of more than 3,000 villages. The report urges the U.N. Security Council to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma, while warning of "the painful consequences of inaction." (See pictures of 19 years of protest in Burma.)

With Burma, however, inaction is probable. The international community has long groped for effective measures — be they carrots or sticks — to persuade the generals to behave better. Last month U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted that Suu Kyi's release could encourage Washington to lift its ban on new investment in Burma. That's obviously off the table for now. Post verdict, it has been replaced by growing calls for the U.N. Security Council to approve a global embargo on arms sales to the regime and investigate its atrocities allegedly committed in its long-running war against ethnic insurgents in eastern Burma. But the Security Council can do neither without the support of permanent members China and Russia, both Burma allies.

What else might move the generals? Conceivably, the threat of prosecution. Words alone aren't enough. The Suu Kyi trial proves again how little they care about world opinion. But don't be fooled by common depictions of them as blinkered, paranoid and xenophobic. "These caricatures ignore the fact that the regime contains intelligent officers who are close observers of the international scene," observes Andrew Selth of Australia's Griffith University. There is evidence that Burma's rulers are concerned about retribution. Just look at the military-drafted constitution. "Approved" by a sham referendum in the wake of last year's Cyclone Nargis, it reserves for the military a quarter of seats in the new parliament after elections scheduled to be held next year. Tellingly, it also grants junta officials immunity from prosecution. "This clause won't protect them from international prosecution," says Mark Farmaner, director of the advocacy group Burma Campaign U.K., "but it shows they're worried about it."

Not worried enough to let Suu Kyi go free. Another 18 months of house arrest is enough time to prevent her from meddling in a 2010 election that the military hopes will legitimize its grip on power; it's also enough time to dream up more excuses to detain her, as the junta has done for nearly 14 of the past 20 years. A British diplomat who attended the trial described her demeanor in court as "calm, dignified [and] upright, exuding quiet authority but no hint of bitterness towards the prosecution." She retreats into isolation once again, leaving one question unanswered. If Than Shwe and his men are ever brought to trial, how calm and dignified will they be?

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