Relatives of victims of alleged war crimes in military-run Myanmar seek justice in Philippines
By Jim Gomez
Burmese relatives of victims of deadly attacks by their government's military hold slogans after filing a criminal complaint against Myanmar's top generals at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines on Wednesday Oct. 25, 2023. Relatives of victims of alleged war crimes committed by Myanmar’s military filed a criminal complaint in the Philippines against their nation’s ruling generals in a desperate attempt to test whether such a case could succeed outside the violence-wracked country.(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Relatives of victims of alleged war crimes committed by Myanmar’s military filed a criminal complaint in the Philippines against their nation’s ruling generals as they increasingly seek to hold them accountable in courts outside the violence-wracked country.
Human rights lawyers representing five Myanmar nationals, who filed the joint complaint before the Department of Justice, contend that a 2009 Philippine law that promotes human rights obligates the Philippines to prosecute war crimes committed elsewhere in the world under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Those named in the complaint are Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar’s ruling military council, eight of his military commanders and a state minister.
Myanmar and the Philippines are both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a conservative 10-nation bloc that has a policy of not intervening in each other’s domestic affairs. Critics say such an approach has allowed human rights atrocities to persist in the region.
Philippine government prosecutors have 90 days to approve or dismiss the complaint. The legal effort underscores the desperation of many in Myanmar, where at least 4,155 people have been killed and more than 19,600 others remain in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that keeps detailed tallies of arrests and casualties since the military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February 2021.
Myanmar has been wracked by civil strife since then, with many opponents of military rule taking up arms and large parts of the country embroiled in bloody conflict.
A group of investigators established by the United Nations said in August it found strong evidence that the army and affiliated militias indiscriminately and disproportionately targeted civilians with bombs, carried out mass executions of people detained during operations and large-scale burning of civilian houses. It said it is collecting evidence that can be used in future prosecutions of those responsible.
The actions of Myanmar’s generals also are under investigation by the International Criminal Court and in a genocide case at the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court. In November 2021, courts in Argentina agreed to investigate allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity against senior Myanmar officials under the universal jurisdiction principle.
“My father and his friend were murdered,” said Zing Raltu, one of the complainants, who wept during a news conference in Manila. “We will never get justice through the Burmese courts. We pray that the Philippines will hear our cry for help.” Myanmar is also known as Burma.
The 47-year-old mother of two, who later escaped to Canada, said army troops gunned down her father, a Christian community leader, and his friend two years ago while attempting to deliver medicine to displaced villagers in Myanmar’s western Chin state.
Another complainant, Salai Za Uk Ling, said at least 350 people had been killed in army artillery bombardments and airstrikes in Chin, the only predominantly Christian state in Buddhist Myanmar where armed struggle for greater autonomy has raged for decades. He said more than 2,000 houses and buildings, including about 60 Christian churches, had been destroyed since the army seized power and attacks intensified.
“Justice is something we cannot achieve inside the country because the military junta ruling the country does not allow for any kind of democratic process,” said Ling, who also fled from Myanmar. “There is no rule of law and they perpetuate human rights abuses with complete impunity.”
One of the Philippine lawyers for the complainants, Gilbert Andres, said that by accepting the case, the Philippines would showcase its democratic tradition by helping fight military impunity in Myanmar.
“This is an opportunity for the Philippines to show the world a difference face. A Philippines, which is rooted in the rule of law, in decency, in democracy and in Christian values,” said Chris Gunnes of the Myanmar Accountability Project, a London-based rights group helping victims of violence in Myanmar get justice.
Human rights groups have also accused former President Rodrigo Duterte of encouraging thousands of killings of suspected drug dealers under his brutal police-enforced crackdown. Duterte, whose turbulent six-year term ended in 2022, denied ordering extrajudicial killings but had openly threatened suspects with death. The killings are being investigated by the International Criminal Court as a possible crime against humanity.
___ Associated Press journalists Joeal Calupitan and Aaron Favila contributed to this report.
JIM GOMEZ Gomez is The AP Chief Correspondent in the Philippines.
Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.