Burma: What We Can Do

At 60 years, it’s the longest running civil war.  3,000+ villages have been destroyed.  Thousands murdered in ethnic cleansing.  2,000,000 refugees have fled and 1,000,000 are internally displaced.  For such a small country, the army is the 7th largest in the world—with no external enemies.  It’s got the largest army of child soldiers and the most deployed landmines in the world—they can afford it when 50% of budget is dedicated to the army.  By the way, don’t get sick here: it’s 190 out of 191 in world health.  This is Burma.  Sadly, most of the world doesn’t know about these facts.  The genocide and internal war there has gone largely unacknowledged.  Thankfully, there are some organizations doing something about it.

I met two organizations yesterday afternoon: Partners Relief & Development and Free Burma Rangers.  Partners is a wonderful organization that does relief and capacity building in the refugee camps on the Thai side of the border.  The organization meets important needs for the refugees who literally have nowhere to go.  There may be some opportunity for Pepperdine Law to assist the work here by providing legal training in the camps—the refugees don’t know Thai, UNHCR regulations, or camp rules—all of which they are subject to.

Jay at the border

The most exciting opportunity for us may be with Free Burma Rangers.  FBR is a group of ex-U.S. commandos that started a relief team running missions to help the Karen escape the army and document the struggle.  They have trained hundreds of other team members now, running missions throughout the country.  As their founder explained to me, they take the position that they are documenting everything—every village destroyed, every individual killed or abused—in order to have mounds of evidence available when these crimes can be brought before an international criminal tribunal.  And mounds of evidence they have—the room we met in was filled with video tapes and documentation.

They need two things: law students to organize all this documentation and a lawyer to bring this action before an international criminal tribunal.  Our meeting opened up some law student internship opportunities.  So, if you’re interested in constructing a legal case against a brutal dictatorship, please let me know.  They have tons of documentation, but no one to piece it together.  I have no expertise on what the process is for bring an action in an international criminal tribunal.  However, there is a law professor from another school that has set out the groundwork for bringing this action.  It sounds like they still need the right person to try the case.

I think that we can make a very tangible difference in Burma through these opportunities—particularly in building the legal case.  I’m bringing many DVDs and written materials home with me, so be prepared for my pitch to get involved.

4 Responses
  1. Madeleine Blu

    I thought you might be interested in this article concerning the collection and sorting of evidence for a War Crimes Tribunal. From: madeleineblu@aol.com
    Rights group to probe Burma war crimes
    Melbourne Herald Sun – Australia
    Law professor David Williams had smuggled himself into Burma on various occasions and worked on constitutional reforms with the Karen ethnic group, …
    By P. Parameswaran in Washington
    October 01, 2008 12:43pm
    AN independent US group is to carry out unprecedented studies to determine whether Burma’s military rulers, accused of rampant human rights abuses, have committed international crimes.
    The Centre for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University’s school of law said it would launch the research based on anecdotal human rights evidence of “severe mistreatment” of marginalised ethnic groups by the military junta.
    “At this stage of the project, I can’t honestly say that there are international crimes,” the centre’s executive director, David Williams, told AFP by telephone.
    “What I can say is there may be, and part of our goal would be to gather the evidence and try to come out with some objective conclusions about whether there are or not,” he said.
    The centre’s goal, he said, was to make focused research “in areas where perhaps it is most likely that international crimes were committed”.
    Only the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) can determine whether international crimes, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been committed by any individual or group.
    So far, Professor Williams said, there has been no institutional focus on possible international crimes committed by Burma’s junta, which imposed a bloody crackdown of pro-democracy protests in September last year that was condemned worldwide.
    The crackdown – according to United Nations figures – left 31 people dead and 74 others missing, and resulted in thousands of arrests.
    The military rulers had also come under international fire and were called “heartless” by some humanitarian groups for initially not allowing foreign aid into the country when a cyclone left 138,000 people dead or missing in May.
    Burma also houses more than 2100 political prisoners, including democracy icon and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.
    Prof Williams said that although the ICC had not initiated any study on the military junta’s record so far, “ours might be a good place for them to get started”.
    “It might help the various investigators know where to go and what allegations to examine and so forth,” he said.
    When asked whether in his personal opinion some of the junta’s actions could be deemed as international crimes, Prof Williams said: “What I might be able to say is that it looks to me, in my professional opinion, like there is a good chance that it is.
    “And it makes sense therefore to bring a prosecution because there is enough evidence that a court should be able to see it,” he pointed out.
    The university group’s staff had been for the last six years helping ethnic groups inside Burma – at their request – draw up constitutional reforms in their struggle to win greater freedom and rights.
    Law professor David Williams had smuggled himself into Burma on various occasions and worked on constitutional reforms with the Karen ethnic group, waging the world’s longest running civil war against the government since 1947.
    “I am hearing endless stories about how the military government is murdering villagers, it’s blowing up rice paddies so that they dry out, it’s setting fires to villages, it’s laying mines in those villages so that when the people come back some of them get blown up,” he said.
    “The result is that they have to move often to hills and find a new place to build a village and start growing rice. That means in a relatively short period of time there is famine because old rice paddies have to be abandoned.”
    Prof Williams said while he did not witness the Burma military units attacking the Karen guerrilla resistance units, he saw “evidence of the military going after the civilian population”.
    “That’s just the tip of the iceberg in itself and that doesn’t constitute conclusive evidence of an international crime but it makes you think,” he said.

  2. Thanks! Interestingly, this Indiana law professor is the person I was referred to and we will hopefully further the dialogue! Thanks!