Myanmar Military Trials are Nothing More than Face-Saving

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a nation in a perpetual state of chaos. The Union of Burma gained its independence in 1948, but it was not long after – in 1962 – that a coup d'état led by General Ne Win established junta rule that would last, officially, until 2011.

The leadership of a strong-armed militaristic government hasn’t prevented civil conflict from arising with regularity. Clashes between the different ethnic and religious sects in the country have been consistent and explosive, and they have not gone away. In October 2012, no fewer than three separate civil conflicts were playing out at once, illustrating just how universal division in Myanmar is, and how ingrained in the nation’s fabric conflict along ethnic and religious lines remains.

No conflict has gained more international attention than the battle between the Myanmarese government – now democratic in title but very much under the watch of the military – and the Muslim Rohingya minority. They reside in the Rhakine state abutting the Western coastline of Myanmar, which also shares a border with Bangladesh to the north. They have been singled out – fairly or not – by the Myanmarese government, portrayed as terrorists and outsiders. The latter is technically true, as the Rohingya were denied access to Myanmarese citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law. Though there are 135 legally recognized ethnic groups included in that law, the Rohingya are not one of them.

This law served as the justification for a crackdown on the Rohingya people in 2016 that continued through the next year. Before a forced migration, an estimated 1 million Rohingya were residing in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. As of December 2017, approximately 625,000 had been forced to relocate to Bangladesh. That number is now closer to 700,000. The manner in which they were forced out has drawn international condemnation, with suggestions of genocide and Amnesty International calling for war crimes trials for members of the Myanmar military.

Amidst this seemingly brutal backdrop, it’s surprised some to read reports that the Myanmarese military has been holding trials for members of its own related to crimes perpetrated against the nation’s ethnic and religious minorities. But, a closer examination of the situation reveals that the trials aren’t all that surprising. In fact, they are a basic form of ass-covering and self-preservation.

Rare trials have resulted in soldiers being given jail sentences for murder in the wake of massacres. However, these proceedings are seen by most as show trials held only in cases where evidence was undeniable. As international attention has focused on the brutal manner by which the Myanmar military-government has expelled the Rohingya, reporters have interviewed witnesses and collected enough first-hand accounts that the actors could not escape punishment.

Unless the government was willing to round up these reporters and eye witnesses to kill, detain, or otherwise silence them, some form of trial must be held. Because the Myanmar government relies on foreign aid, and sanctions from the West have proven crushing in the past. An economic downturn resulting from imposed sanctions has been enough to topple government before, and the Tatmadaw – the monicker by which the Myanmar military is known – values its power too highly to risk potential unrest beyond what it already deals with.

So, trials proceed. At least when the perpetrators are caught red-handed.

‘The highest-profile conviction of Tatmadaw soldiers so far came after the massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in the village of Inn Din last year. Seven soldiers received 10 years with hard labor in April ­— but only after the murders were exposed by two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who as a result are facing up to 14 years in prison under the country’s Official Secrets Act.’ (Foreign Policy)

Surely, Tatamadaw leadership hopes that these trials will tamp down allegations of war crimes. They also hope to maintain the façade of democracy that was established when junta rule officially ended in 2011. The air of legitimacy – however flimsy – is critical in evading Western sanctions and investigations into the practices of the military.

Myanmar’s representatives have already found themselves warding of UN intervention, which is always a potential signal that upheaval will not be far behind.

‘United Nations Security Council delegates told top generals in May that they wanted to probe the violence in Rakhine, Min Aung Hlaing responded that the army had looked into claims of abuses during previous bouts of violence and punished the perpetrators. “We have investigated enough already,” he said.’

It’s more likely than not that they will have to ward off further calls to intervene in Myanmar, as the Rohingya conflict isn’t going away soon. It remains to be seen whether the show trials will achieve their desired end. Many are fervent about the plight of the Rohingya, and once the international spotlight is fixed on a perceived villain, all bets are off.

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