Burma’s “Shackles of the Past” are Today’s Wounds

Veronica Collins argues that government silence on Burma’s bloody past has led to ongoing human rights abuses.

Twice in one week Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has urged Burma not to look too closely at its past.

The anniversary of the 8888 uprising, which saw her become an icon of Burma’s democratic struggle, was met with silence by the government.

Shortly after, the State Counselor led another charge against the country’s collective memory. This time, she told a crowd in Naypyidaw that “the victims of the past, those who can’t shatter the shackles of the past, have caused a lot of hindrances in the democratic transition”.

Victims of human rights abuses are strange targets for the Nobel Laureate’s ire. Perhaps if the government had held its democracy forum some 500km north in Namhsan Township, Shan State, the diagnosis of Burma’s ills would have been different.

In a case recorded by the Network for Human Rights Documentation (ND-Burma) in conflict ridden Namhsan Township in February, Tatmadaw soldiers arrested a 27 year old man as he was fetching water for his family. Deaf and mute, the ethnic Ta’ang man was unable to respond when soldiers called to him. In response, they tied him up and beat him until he could no longer walk or open his eyes. After the soldiers released him, the village leader was forced to sign a statement saying the victim would not be taken for medical treatment.

In another case recorded by ND-Burma, also in Namhsan, Tatmadaw soldiers detained villagers on four separate occasions over a three month period and demanded information about the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). When the men pleaded their innocence they were beaten and told that they would be killed and dressed in Ta’ang soldiers’ uniforms.

Documentation by ND-Burma and other organisations shows that many of the patterns of abuse and repression that pushed protesters onto the streets in 1988 continue to this day, especially in ethnic nationality areas.

It is difficult to let go of the “shackles of the past” when the present looks much the same.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi considers victims a “hindrance” on Burma’s path to democracy. Yet victims’ demands for justice tend to be relatively modest. Above all else, victims ask for government recognition and an official apology for the abuses they have suffered. This, they say, will help them rebuild their lives and show the government is committed to building a future where rights abuses are no longer committed with impunity.

Others want compensation to cover medical costs and livelihood assistance. Many victims ND-Burma interviewed are no longer able to hear, see or walk as a result of torture. They certainly cannot work, and families who have lost the main breadwinner of the household often live in acute poverty, relying on handouts from family members. If the government is serious about reconciliation, it could perhaps urge the Tatmadaw to expand its programme providing medical and financial support to disabled soldiers to include victims of right abuses.

In the absence of government action, civil society organizations are using their meagre resources to help victims to the best of their abilities. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners offers vocational training to improve the often dire employment prospects of those released from jail— not all former political prisoners were given jobs in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s parliament. The Vimutti Women’s Organization provides makeshift centres for survivors of rights abuses, offering activities such as meditation and group counseling. Despite the inexpensiveness of these activities, they are faced with constant funding shortages. The government should give them the money they need to continue helping victims. 

Justice for rights violations does not need to come in the form of criminal tribunals. Words can begin to heal wounds. But as long as Burma stays silent, the abuses will continue. Indeed, the “victims of the past” are not “hindrances”, but essential parts of Burma’s future.

Veronica Collins is ND-Burma’s Advocacy Manager. Before coming to Burma she worked on human rights issues for the UN in Kosovo and the EU in Brussels.