Guest correspondent: Ruthless military dictators are not given to taking notice of outsiders but that should not dissuade the New Zealand government from adding its voice to international protests at the seven-year jail sentences given two Reuters’ journalists in Myanmar.
The sentences followed a trial dubbed a travesty of justice by the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, and were condemned by the European Union.
US vice president Mike Pence, moreover, said the reporters should be commended – not imprisoned – for their work exposing human rights violations and the mass killings of ethnic Rohingya civilians.
The reporters, convicted of breaching Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, claimed they were framed by police in a military-inspired trap aimed at silencing them. They said they were invited to dinner by police, who then gave them documents – documents which the authorities claimed were state secrets when the journalists were arrested.
The sentences followed a public presumption of the reporters’ guilt –before they had been convicted – by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). She has since defended the sentences, denying any issue of freedom of speech and citing the rule of law.
This domestic rule of law, presumably, is different from the international laws that a United Nations’ report on August 27 accused Myanmar’s military of having broken with war crimes and crimes against humanity across the country.
The report from the UN Human Rights Council claimed a fact-finding mission found
conclusive evidence that the actions of the country’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, “undoubtedly amounted to the gravest crimes under international law” against the Moslem Rohingya minority in Rakhine state as well as in Kachin and Shan, states also riven by internal conflicts.
UN investigators were denied access to Myanmar by the government but interviewed
875 witnesses who had fled the country. They found that the military were “killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages”.
The Tatmadaw also carried out murders, imprisonments, enforced disappearances,
torture, rapes and used sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence, persecution and enslavement – all of which constitute crimes against humanity, the report said.
It named individuals singled out for investigation and prosecution for genocide and crimes against humanity, including Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, who has openly stated his intention to solve “the long-standing Bengali problem”. (The army forced an estimated 700,000 of Rohingya out of Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh.)
“There is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine state,” the report said.
The UN report called for Myanmar to be investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK would urge the UN to refer Myanmar’s military leaders to the ICC, saying they “must be brought to justice”.
The UN report criticised Aung San Suu Kyi’s passive role over the past year, saying she “has not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine state”.
It called on the international community to hold those responsible to account.
The New Zealand government has been silent on the issue since Foreign Minister Winston Peters issued a statement on November 16 2017, saying the government was “very concerned with the violence and humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State and we continue to urge the Myanmar government to do it all can to safeguard those affected.”
New Zealand has the power to make more than a mere diplomatic protest. It could cancel an aid programme which brings young Myanmar leaders to this country to
“improve their English and understanding of democracy in action”, according to the MFAT website.
Graduates are “actively involved in fostering peace and development” in Myanmar, according to MFAT, though democracy is clearly present only in the name of the party led by a woman who has besmirched the Nobel Peace prize awarded her.