Abuses and investigations in Burma

I’m sympathetic to the argument that human rights lawyers Geoffrey Nice and Pedro Nikken make in this Washington Post op-ed: that interest in Burma should go beyond the legitimate calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom; that grave human rights abuses, probably amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been going on unchecked for a long time in the country; and that the international community, including the United Nations, have long known about these travesties. But I find their proposed solution — “maintain[ing] our gaze” and “authoriz[ing] a commission of inquiry” — well-prescribed (both by these two and by one of our own) but not wholly fleshed out here and, if anything, insufficient.

As symbolically (and actually) egregious as the continued imprisonment of Burma’s celebrated pro-democracy leader is, I’ve always found the international attention heaped upon her — as if her release alone would clear the way for a domestic Burmese solution — troublingly myopic. This has in fact allowed the Burmese generals to focus their propaganda efforts on show trials and (severely) limited accommodations for one individual, even as the subjugation of the rest of the country’s population steamrolls along. Similarly, for Burmese to rest their hopes on Suu Kyi’s shoulders is to foster an illusion that her release would wholly relieve them of their plight.

But Nice and Nikken are right; the world has known about these pervasive patterns of abuse for a long time. Despite citing a study that relied only on UN documentation, though, the authors allege that “the U.N. Security Council has not systematically investigated these abuses.” A commission of inquiry mandated for a wide-ranging investigation is doubtlessly necessary, but even a full accounting of abuses will not, like the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, guarantee that the abuses cease.

I don’t expect an op-ed to propose a long-range, comprehensive plan for Burma’s rehabilitation (nor do I have one), but some acknowledgment of the factors that would make a commission of inquiry difficult — the chokehold that the country’s generals maintain over the population, their North Korea-esque penchant for unpredictable intransigence and intractability, and the dire humanitarian needs of the country — seems necessary (the ICC indictment of Bashir could provide lessons, for instance). Urging on the Security Council and a commission of inquiry is important, but important players like China, India, and the United States cannot hide behind either the UN or a claim to need to know more.

(image of Burmese generals, from flickr user deepchi1 under a Creative Commons license)