Does rule of law have any future in Myanmar?

opinion August 02, 2018 01:00

By Htun Aung Gyaw
Special to The Nation

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Two recent cases demonstrate how Army generals have retained control over a country they ruled for decades

Two recent court cases show how the rule of law in Myanmar remains subservient to Army law, a legacy of decades of military dictatorship that only ended in 2015. 

The first case stems from the well-documented practice of forced child recruitment by the Army. 

When Aung Ko Htwe told Radio Free Asia (RFA) earlier this year of the brutality he endured as a child soldier, the Army responded swiftly. But instead of launching an internal investigation, it sued him for “disrespecting” the nation.

Whistleblower Htwe is of course innocent of that charge. The party staining the reputation of the country here is the Army, its recruiters and the officers who press-gang children into the ranks.

Htwe believed that under the new civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi he would get justice, since it was elected by voters seeking change after decades of military rule.

So he was shocked and disgusted when the court, rather than throwing out the Army’s complaint, agreed to hear the charges. 

“There is no justice,” he blasted. “My interview [with RFA] was about the Army recruiting child soldiers, not about disrespecting the nation.”

He refused to stand trial and criticised the judge for lacking ethical standards. He was promptly dragged to court and sentenced to six months in jail for contempt. When his sister and supporters criticised that ruling, the judge ordered their arrest. Several were detained and his sister has been in hiding ever since. Htwe was subsequently also found guilty over the RFA interview and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. 

For revealing the truth about his ordeal as a forcibly conscripted child soldier, he will spend a total of two and a half years in jail. 

Htwe’s case is a clear indication that the Army is still in power in Myanmar, and that Suu Kyi and her so-called government have nothing to stop the military from doing whatever it wants. 

In the same manner, judges are taking their orders from the Army rather than from the law books. As a result, innocent people are facing trial and jail whenever they dare stand up to military injustice.

Punished for revealing the truth 

The second case concerns Reuters reporters Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested and placed on trial for investigating an atrocity in which soldiers and vigilantes murdered 12 innocent Muslim villagers in In Din village, Rakhine state. Seven Army soldiers have each been sentenced to 10 years for the massacre, but the two reporters will each get 14 years in prison if found guilty of charges that they leaked government secrets.

Police officer Moe Yan Naing, who met with the Reuters men and handed them documents about the In Din murders, confessed in court that that two reporters had been framed by a chief of police. That testimony failed to toe the Army line, and Moe Yan Naing was promptly handed one year in jail for breaking the police code. He was sentenced in absentia so did not know which judge and court passed the verdict. The prosecutor has now launched an appeal, claiming that his testimony is not valid and reliable since it had favoured the reporters’ claims of innocence over the Army’s line. 

The military has been trying to deflect attention away from their appalling image by using nationalism as its main shield. They claim to be the force that protects the nation, promotes Buddhism, and will sacrifice life for the country.

In reality, the country was impoverished under military rule, while the generals became millionaires and even billionaires. The son of Army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has invested US$4 billion in the Mytel telecommunication business. Recently Mytel was permitted to open an office in the former Army headquarters in Yangon. It appears that the son has inherited his father’s property. In reality, military property is not owned by the country or the government but by the generals. No one dare speak up about this, including Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD).

Millionaire generals

People do gossip about the Army top brass, though. “If you want to be a millionaire become a general”, is a popular piece of advice. Many marvel at the contradiction between the modest salaries of top officers and their huge wealth. In every state and division, generals own a portion of land – not one or two acres but hundreds. Who pays the price? For decades locals have been losing their land and turning from farm owners to renters. Many have left Myanmar to seek work in neighbouring countries, mainly Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Under the previous military government of Thein Sein, Myanmar began the switch from cattle-farming to industrial farming. Yet the country is not developing, because there are no longer enough people for cattle farming and most cattle are exported to China and Thailand – many illegally. The shortage of cows and human resources has forced villagers to plough with tractors, yet ironically Myanmar has adopted industrial farming minus any progress.

Suu Kyi was recently interviewed about the Reuters’ reporters case, and said they were in detention because they had leaked national secrets. One of the accused, Wa Lone, said: “She might not know the real story and might have been misled by someone.”

Suu Kyi’s strategy of taming the Army by collaborating with it and overlooking its past crimes against humanity is not working. Her one-sided national reconciliation approach is failing to benefit anyone except the generals and their business cronies. The ethnic leaders who allied with the NLD ahead of the 2015 election are now distancing themselves from her. Meanwhile leaders of the 88 Generation movement who tried to join the NLD before the election have been spurned by the ruling party. As a result, they are now forming their own political party to contest in the 2020 elections. All indications are that the NLD is set to lose many of the constituencies it gained in 2015. The Army is still manoeuvring behind the NLD to gain political power in the 2020 election. 

The failure of democratisation in Myanmar is most evident in the fact that rule of law still does not exist. Those who dare expose rights violations or crimes against humanity committed by the military are finding themselves in trouble with the police. The courts now ring with false charges of “being disrespectful to the nation”.