When Burma’s new Constitution comes into effect after next year’s election, it will enshrine the culture of impunity that has allowed the ruling junta to commit countless human rights abuses over the past two decades, according to a new report released by the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).
The 40-page report, titled “Impunity Prolonged: Burma and its 2008 Constitution,” says the charter—approved last year in a referendum widely dismissed as a sham—contains a number of provisions that protect the regime from future prosecution.“Burma presents one of the most difficult challenges in the world in relation to making progress toward combating impunity,” says the report, which urges the international community to withhold support for the election until the regime amends the Constitution to end impunity for human rights violations.
The junta’s human rights abuses have continued unabated since it seized power in 1988, particularly in rural areas populated by ethnic minorities. According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, a nongovernmental humanitarian relief group, there are currently some 451,000 internally displaced persons in eastern Burma alone. Forced labor, recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence against women are among the more common forms of abuse committed by the regime.
According to the ICTJ report, numerous cases documented by UN special rapporteurs and women’s groups demonstrate “that rape is not a violation committed by rogue elements in the military, but rather appears to be a strategy” of the junta.
“The perpetrators have a level of impunity that indicates institutional support for these practices,” said the report.
Khin Maung Shwe, a Burmese dissident who has attended ICTJ seminars in South Africa, said that the 2008 Constitution does not only give the armed forces 25 percent of seats in parliament; it also guarantees the military immunity from prosecution for crimes committed against the civilian population.
According to Khin Maung Shwe, under Articles 443 and 445 of Chapter XIV of the Constitution, the current regime cannot be held accountable for its wrongdoing in the past.
Article 443 states that “the preparatory work done by the [regime] before this Constitution comes into operation, to bring the Constitution into operation, shall be deemed to have been carried out in accord with this Constitution.”
“No proceeding shall be instituted against the [ruling military council] or any member thereof or any member of the Government, in respect to any act done in the execution of their respective duties,” according to Article 445.
“By legitimating the constitution, it is like giving an amnesty to the junta,” said Khin Maung Shwe.
David Mathieson, a Burma researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the ICTJ report shows how entrenched the culture of impunity is for crimes against humanity in Burma.
“The international community should realize that just ignoring these crimes only makes the impunity worse,” he said.
Others also highlighted the need to address the issue of widespread abuses that have been carried out over decades.
“We can say with certainty that crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed in Burma,” said Aung Htoo, the general-secretary of the exiled Burma Lawyers’ Council.
“How can the planned elections be given any credence when war still rages in eastern Burma?” asked Debbie Stothard, the coordinator of Altsean-Burma.
Many Burmese dissidents and ethnic leaders have also urged greater international pressure on the regime to revise the Constitution, which Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of Karen National Union, called “a death sentence for ethnic diversity.”