Justice and National Reconciliation: Why Looking at the Past is the Key to the Future

Janeen Sawatzky calls for a re-thinking of “reconciliation” in the context of Burma’s transition.

Since Burma embarked on its transition from a military government to a nominally civilian-led one in 2010, ‘national reconciliation’ has become a ubiquitous concept amongst its politicians and advocates for peace. The 2010 election was seen as an important opportunity for dialogue and cooperation, as well as a potential catalyst for peace in a country torn apart by more than 60 years of civil war. With the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) historic electoral win in 2015, hope was further renewed for rebuilding Burma into a genuine democracy and uniting its fragmented society.

While many things have changed in Burma since those early days of guarded optimism, too much remains the same. The NLD, once a beleaguered pro-democracy group under Burma’s military government is now the governing party. Significant political and economic reforms have been introduced and the international community has begun to re-engage with the former pariah state. Yet, the ongoing rhetoric of ‘national reconciliation’ by Burma’s top politicians increasingly rings hollow, as violence in northern Rakhine State has recently pushed over half a million refugees into Bangladesh, and war in northern Kachin and Shan states rages on with civilians caught in the middle.

In addition to ongoing mass human rights violations, the new leadership in Burma’s government continues to exhibit strategies for denying its dark past— from the exercise of defamation laws such as Section 66(d) to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals critical of the NLD or military, to the recent arrest of journalists under 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, and to Aung San Suu Kyi’s farcical statement that her government has never been “soft on human rights [violations]” during her disappointing televised address in September 2017. All this reveals an administration unwilling or unable to address its violent history.

The current narrative espoused by the NLD is one whereby the country can pursue national reconciliation without addressing its past. According to Aung San Suu Kyi, victims of human rights violations who are unable or unwilling to forget their past are a ‘hindrance’ to the democratic transition. As Veronica Collins rightly argued in an earlier Oxford Tea Circle article, “victims of the past are not ‘hindrances,’ but essential parts of Burma’s future.”

While some have even questioned whether ‘national reconciliation’ carries any significant meaning at all for those politicians who espouse it as Burma’s ‘prevailing narrative,’ entreaties to forget the past by figures such as Aung San Suu Kyi show a careless disregard for those who have suffered at the hands of the Burma Army and Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs); such statements resort to blaming victims for the country’s  lack of progress, rather than addressing root causes for grievances and acknowledging and addressing past wrongs.

In addition, much of the current administration’s rhetoric surrounding ‘national reconciliation’ has been criticized for referring only to healing the hostile relationship between the NLD and the Burma Army or between the government and EAGs, while offering little in the way of substantive policy. The necessity of building trust between civilian populations and the government, particularly in communities which have suffered decades of grave human rights violations, is too often overlooked when this narrative of ‘national reconciliation’ is invoked.

What is lost in all the rhetoric of ‘national reconciliation’ is that many villagers are often unable to forget the violence inflicted upon them and do desire some form of justice for abuses endured, as is shown by research recently published by the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM). For over 22 years, HURFOM has documented patterns of abuse, providing evidence of the widespread and systematic violation of human rights by the Burma Army and EAGs, particularly in the forms of arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture; extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances; rape and other forms of sexual violence; and land, property, and housing rights violations.

I have never forgotten about it as I was tortured by them. I remember what they did to me whenever I see soldiers.”

– Nai T—, Yebyu Township, Tanintharyi Region, September 2017

Central to the desires for justice by interviewed community members in Mon State and northern Tanintharyi Region were key components of transitional justice, particularly truth seeking, reparations, and criminal prosecutions. By far the most prevalent calls for justice were in the form of reparations, including monetary compensation, community development, access to land, and guarantees of non-repetition. Frequently, interviewees expressed a desire for the public acknowledgement and apology for wrongs committed by the Burma Army. Justice does not always require criminal prosecutions. Public apologies can serve as a symbolic form of reparation and, when offered in tandem with compensation, they can serve as a powerful start in addressing past wrongs and a first step in the healing process for societies affected by widespread human rights violations.

I want to hear that one day the perpetrators will apologize for what they did.”

– U A—, Ye Township, Mon State, December 2016

HURFOM’s research challenges the Burma government’s narrative that national reconciliation is possible without confronting its violent past. It shows that transitional justice is a necessary step for the country to build trust and heal. The Burma government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and thus it must immediately cease all human rights violations and publicly acknowledge and apologize for its role in violating the rights of community members.

It is incumbent upon the Burma government to develop and implement a reparation policy, which can immediately benefit individuals and communities in Burma. One of the most urgent needs of survivors of human rights abuses in Burma is the alleviation of poverty. In particular, land confiscations have ripped many ethnic communities from their sources of livelihood, plunging them into debt, poverty, and often causing displacement. Any reparation policy implemented by the Burma government must address issues of land confiscation, particularly for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugee communities.

The institution of a reparation policy can help to build trust in a deeply divided society. But it is not just the Burma government which must acknowledge its responsibility in past and ongoing violations. EAGs also have the responsibility to acknowledge and apologize for their role in past and ongoing abuses.

Any narrative concerning national reconciliation by the Burma government that does not address its violent past is unsustainable. The Burma government must acknowledge the voices of villagers in Burma and allow them a central role in the national reconciliation process.

Janeen Sawatzky is the Senior Researcher at the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM). She has previously worked with Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) as a Research Fellow and Capacity Building Manager.