State Crimes Allegedly Committed in Myanmar against the Rohingyas,Kachins and Other GroupsUniversity of Malaya, Faculty of Law18-22 September 2017, Kuala Lumpur, MalaysiaJUDGMENT
I. GENERAL HISTORICAL AND JURIDICAL FRAMEWORK
I.1 The competence of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal
The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) is an international opinion tribunal, independent from any state authority. It examines cases regarding violations of human rights and the rights of peoples. Promoted by the Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, the PPT was founded in June 1979, in Bologna, Italy, by a broad spectrum of legal experts, writers and other cultural community leaders from 31 countries. The PPT is rooted in the historical experience of the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam (1966-67) and on dictatorships in Latin America (1974-1976). The importance and strength of decisions by the PPT rest on the moral weight of the causes and arguments to which they give credibility, as well as the integrity and capability to judge of the Tribunal members. While fully recognising the reference role of the institutions of the international community of states and the juridical instruments, the PPT assumed as its Statute the Universal Declaration of Peoples’ Rights (Algiers, 1976), which underlines its aim: to give visibility and legitimacy to the authority of peoples when states and the international bodies fail to protect their rights, due to geopolitical reasons or other motivations.
Complaints heard by the Tribunal are submitted by the victims, or by groups or individuals representing them. The PPT calls together all parties concerned and offers the defendants the possibility to make their own arguments heard. The panel of the judges is selected for each case, combining members who belong to a permanent list and individuals who are recognised for their competence and integrity. From June 1979 to the present, the PPT has held 43 sessions whose results and judgments are available at: www.permanentpeoplestribunal.org.
The permanent and increasing challenge of the original working hypothesis has been confirmed by the spectrum of cases which have requested the competence of the PPT as the instrument which could make visible and qualify the violations of their fundamental rights to self-determination and to life, in the absence of, or denial in, responses at the institutional, juridical and political level. In this sense, the verdicts and deliberations of the PPT represent a narrative of international law as seen from the side of peoples, when their status of victims is translated into that of the only legitimate subjects to whom the public and private powers are accountable, beyond their legal impunity.
For the purpose of this case on the violations of the rights of peoples of Myanmar, it is useful to refer specifically to the doctrine developed by the PPT in the deliberations where state crimes have been committed against individuals and groups of the same countries, transformed from citizens into enemies, and/or “other” and, as such, exposed in full impunity to processes of discrimination leading to a genocide, recognised only too late, or even never: Argentina and its desaparecidos, 1980; East Timor, lead case of the first neo-colonial genocide, 1981; Guatemala and its indigenous populations,
1983; the determinants and the responsibility for the Armenian genocide, 1984; the peoples of the ex- Yugoslavia, 1995; victims of Islamic fundamentalism of Algeria, 2004; the communities of Colombia,
2006-08. An even more specific reference must be made to the two sessions on the case of Eelam Tamils (Dublin, 2019; Bremen, 2013) which could be considered, from a methodological and doctrinal point of view, an integral part and foundation for this deliberation.
I.2 The general context
After World War II, Burma, later to be known as Myanmar, formerly governed as part of British India, was recognised as a nation state and granted independence in 1948 by the United Kingdom. Within its borders were a large number of ethnic and religious minorities dominated by the majority Bamar, or Burmese, mainly Buddhists, who had been the primary beneficiaries of colonial rule. From 1962, when a military coup brought a repressive regime to power, the minorities began to suffer increasing discrimination and loss of human rights, including citizenship in varying degrees. While the undemocratic nature and loss of human rights under the military junta was obvious to the international community, little action was taken to bring about a change. Much moral support was given to the oppositionists, in particular Aung San Suu Kyi, who was a political prisoner for nearly two decades.
The current situation of mass flight from the country by the Rohingya and increased human rights abuse against them and other non-Burman Buddhist minorities is not a new phenomenon. There have been similar significant, if smaller, episodes of mass flights in previous years, notably in 1978, 1992 and 2012. Nevertheless, the international community did little to avert a catastrophe although the signs were clearly there. It appears that placing an array of sanctions on the country, and supporting the National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights struggle, was thought sufficient to bring about a significant change in Myanmar’s human rights record. Eventually it seemed a good result had been achieved as Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament in 2012, and made State Counsellor (effectively Prime Minister) in 2016, under
the new 2008 constitution. But that constitution essentially ensured real power remained with the military.
Despite the widely acclaimed “transition to democracy”, a visit by President Obama in 2012 and the lifting of sanctions, the human rights situation did not improve and was observed by many to be getting worse. In response, no effective action was taken by the United Nations (nor by other international institutions such as ASEAN), despite numerous warnings, e.g. from the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (four reports from 2014-2016 and another in March 2017). To what extent the current anti-Muslim and anti-terrorism beliefs that have gained strength since 9/11 have ensured sympathy for the Myanmar government and forestalled a unity of commitment to act on behalf of the people of Myanmar is not clear. It may well be that such beliefs, along with falling support in the country due to economic failures, led the government to embark on an escalation of its repression and human rights abuses.
In these circumstances, the PPT moved to inquire into the situation consistent with its view that genocide prevention is also a matter for the peoples of the world to be aware of and thence to demand action. That it is now known that a Report by a UN commissioned expert who said the situation in Myanmar demanded urgent action to prevent a catastrophe was ignored and even suppressed, makes clear that peoples’ organisations such as the PPT, independent from states and from INGOs, have an important role to play in bringing a judicial spotlight to bear, albeit without power of enforcement, standing alongside the victims and letting their voices be heard in the unfulfilled task of preventing such future human tragedies so that we can finally say with confidence: Never again.
I.3 The specificity and the term of reference of this session
The attention of the PPT for the situation of peoples of Myanmar dates back to 2013, at a time when Myanmar’s (already ongoing) violations were hardly considered, and even less well known on the world stage. This was the hidden face of a state seen as undergoing a transformation from military to democratic control, with a woman icon of peace at the helm portrayed as an indisputable guarantee for a future in which all the citizens of the country could be recognised as inviolable subjects of their rights to a life in dignity.A clear alarm was sounded of an impending genocide at a number
of events leading up to this session,including a London conference at which the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights,
Tomás Ojéa Quintana stated “There are elements of genocide in Rakhine with respect to Rohingya”9 . This was followed by the Opening Session of the PPT on Myanmar State Crimes against Rohingya, Kachin and Other Groups, convened in London (Queen Mary University, 6-7 March 2017)10. The reports, the Witness testimonies and in particular the closing remarks of that session, must be considered and referred to as an integral part of this Judgment. Nevertheless, the findings of the PPT, as well as of a number of other observers from various UN bodies, national and international NGOs and research teams11 did not manage to draw the concerted attention of the international community nor of wider public opinion, let alone any concrete preventive action.
The preparatory phase for this session was transformed into one of urgency due to the rapidly – even if not unexpectedly – evolving situation with the dramatic “clearance” incidents of October 2016 in Rakhine state, even more so because of the absolute invisibility to the world of what had already been characterised by the PPT and others as a drastic case requiring immediate attention.
Only on the eve of this session, the suffering of the Rohingya peoples finally and belatedly seized world attention, as the increasingly perilous situation of the Rohingya burst into press coverage of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing a large-scale military build-up followed by massive attacks launched by the Myanmar and police military forces as well as paramilitary and civilians, purported to be in response to a number of coordinated assaults on Myanmar border posts on 25 August 2017. As a result, within the three weeks leading up to this session, nearly half a million people crossed the border from western Myanmar into Bangladesh, telling harrowing stories of the carnage they left behind as they crammed into open fishing boats or trudged along muddy paths carrying babies and the elderly and bundles of meagre possessions, seeing plumes of smoke soar into the air as their homes and villages were burnt to the ground.
Many of these refugees arrived in Bangladesh presenting serious injury from these burnings, from machete, knife and gunshot wounds, from rape and other sexual assault as well as from land mines apparently laid even during the immediate past along the paths to the border. Of particular concern
London Conference on Decades of State-Sponsored Destruction of Myanmar’s Rohingya, London School of Economics, 28 April 2014.
Opening Session of the PPT on Myanmar State Crimes against Rohingya, Kachin and Other Groups, convened in London (Queen Mary University, 6-7 March 2017). See
https://tribunalonmyanmar.org/?s=london+session and, for the closing remarks of the panel of the