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Balancing reconciliation and justice in Myanmar

No progress without accountability for past atrocities, say activists

Balancing reconciliation and justice in Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi views a photo exhibition in Yangon during the 25th anniversary commemoration of the pro-democracy uprising in August 1988 (AFP photo/Soe Than Win)

John Zaw and Thomas Toe, Yangon

August 19, 2013

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As the flush of excitement surrounding Myanmar's first authorized public commemoration of the "8-8-88" uprising begins to fade, many are left wondering what the true legacy of that pivotal event will be for a country making the difficult transition from a pariah state to a fully integrated and functional democracy.

An estimated 3,000 people lost their lives during the uprising of August 8, 1988, when soldiers opened fire on unarmed pro-democracy protesters. It wasn’t the first time this happened in Myanmar, nor would it be the last.

Thousands more were rounded up and handed lengthy prison terms, as the country’s ruling generals tightened their stranglehold on power. They rejected the crushing election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990 and countered any future political dissent with unmitigated hostility.

Now, many of those same generals have shed their uniforms, recast themselves as politicians and encouraged the nation and international community to let bygones be bygones by talking up reconciliation and national unity.

What these former military men have not done, say some former student activists, is to acknowledge their roles in the crimes of the past.

Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and himself a former political prisoner who spent seven years in jail, says true reconciliation requires both. Not out of motivation for revenge, he is quick to add, but for the sake of the truth.

“It is too extreme to say that we must forget the past. Without the past, there is no present or future. How will future generations know about the struggle it took to get where we are now if we forget the past?” he asked.

Reconciliation, and more importantly accountability, also requires efforts to undo the damage to innocents who lost their lives or spent years behind bars.

The government must consider compensation for political prisoners, access to healthcare for those ravaged by untreated diseases while in prison and assistance for the care of their families, Bo Kyi says.

“If [the former military rulers] reveal the truth and admit their wrongdoing in the past, I believe Myanmar people will forgive them. Only then can we carry out trust-building and move toward the goal of reconciliation,” he said

The issue of trust is foundational to Myanmar’s reform process, according to Patrick Pierce, head of the Myanmar Program at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based advocacy group.

“The success of reforms and the peace process hinges on public trust,” Pierce said.

But the issue of accountability is a thorny one, clouded by the rhetoric of reconciliation and national unity, and by fears that talk of justice may derail ongoing efforts at democratic reform.

For some international rights groups and outside observers, the issue is less complicated.

“The mass killings 25 years ago in Burma are an unaddressed open wound that challenges the government’s rhetoric of reform,” Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement before this year's 8-8-88 commemoration.

“The government should shed itself of 50 years of denial about military abuses by showing that it stands with the Burmese people and not with the killers of the past.”

President Thein Sein, who is being feted as a true reformer, was invited to tour the United States and Europe and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

However, he also “distinguished” himself during the crackdown in August 1988, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable from October, 2004.

“[Then] Major Thein Sein served as commander of Light Infantry Division-55, one of the elite organizations loyal to the Burmese Socialist Program Party [Myanmar's ruling party during the uprising]. In that capacity, he distinguished himself, as did Soe Win, in the crackdown against the 1988 uprising in support of democracy,” the Wikileaks cable reads.

And what does Myanmar’s reformist president think about the actions the Myanmar military took 25 years ago?

In his first speech to the country's new parliament on March 30, 2011, he praised them.

“Also in 1988, the Tatmadaw [military] government saved the country from deteriorating conditions in various sectors and reconstructed the country,” he said.

Thein Sein went further in an interview with French television station France 2 in February this year.

“From our point of view, we have acted for the benefit of the people. The opposition might think that we have done wrong but we think it was for the good of the people. So it was a good policy. Nobody can say who was right or who was wrong.”

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who reported on the 1988 crackdown in Yangon and has written several books on Myanmar, says the issue of accountability will not go away, despite efforts by the government to ignore the demands of justice.

“It is obvious that the atrocities committed in 1988 have not been forgotten, and the people in power cannot go on pretending that it’s not an issue, or, as President Thein Sein [does], go on claiming that the military ‘saved the country’ by killing unarmed demonstrators,” he was quoted as saying earlier this month in a report by Myanmar media organization The Irrawaddy. “Those responsible for the massacres should be brought to justice.”

And yet opinions about reconciliation, accountability and justice remain divided among activists, analysts and politicians attempting to navigate the turbulent waters of national reform.

Pierce of the ICTJ says that reconciliation and accountability can be “mutually reinforcing approaches to dealing with the past," but that both require similarly mutual trust.

“Accountability builds trust that everyone is playing by the same rules and there will be consequences if those rules are not followed, and ultimately I don’t see how you can have reconciliation if that basic trust is not there,” he said.

Pierce further noted that what often gets lost in discussions about justice and accountability is what the victims of past atrocities actually want and need.

“The focus for nearly all of the people I have talked to about these issues, from government ministers and advisors to victims and activists, is a commitment to develop ways to ensure mass violations do not happen again,” he said.

Sandar Min, an NLD parliamentarian, says she accepts the ‘forgive and move on’ model for the sake of developing the country.

“We cannot abolish history, but if we are going to aim for reconciliation we must not incite old wounds, as we are in a transition period for nation-building,” she told

Suu Kyi echoed these sentiments during her address to a packed convention hall in Yangon during the 25th anniversary commemoration ceremony on Aug 8.

“Whatever we do, we must not hold grudges against each other. We will have to heal the wounds the country suffered by showing love and compassion,” she said.

For Win Min, a former student activist and witness to the killings in 1988, this month’s commemoration was about neither reconciliation nor accountability – issues that no doubt will be further debated in and outside the country.

It was about honoring the sacrifices of those who came before, and keeping promises made when the hopes for a democratic Myanmar seemed all but lost, he said in an interview with AFP at the commemoration ceremony.

“We want to show our sorrow for the dead today and to show them that we are moving forward to the goal of democracy … we promised them we would continue.”

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