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Southeast Asia


Hague trials for the Burmese junta? (New York Times)

9 April 2013

Published in the New York Times, May 19, 2005

Story on Times website here

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Over the last five years, Guy Horton has been secretly entering Myanmar to gather evidence of human rights abuses that he hopes will open the door to international action against the nation's military rulers.

With the financial backing of the Dutch government and a major nongovernmental aid organization, he has made a number of journeys into the nation's "horseshoe," the ethnic regions around central Myanmar, formerly called Burma,that he says have become killing fields.

Using victims' statements, photographs, maps and film, and advised by legal counsel to the UN tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, he purports to have documented slave labor, systematic rape, the conscription of child soldiers, massacres and the deliberate destruction of villages, food sources and medical services. His brief was simply to ensure that the evidence met the standards of international law.

The result is a 600-page report - "Dying Alive: A Legal Assessment of Human Rights Violations in Burma." On Thursday, Horton left his base in northern Thailand to present the report to U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch officials who are familiar with his project.

Horton's motivation to investigate abuses in Myanmar stemmed from his friendship in England with the late husband of the country's leading dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi. His project concludes as the military junta in Yangon comes under mounting international criticism.

Myanmar's neighbors in Southeast Asiahave grown increasingly impatient with the nation's human rights record, and the United States and the European Union are suggesting a boycott of meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations if Myanmar assumes the association's helm on schedule next year. Several officials in the region have suggested, albeit tentatively, that Yangon stand aside unless it shows marked improvement on human rights questions.

For Horton, however, the time for symbolism has passed. In presenting his evidence, he is urging the international community to become proactive in protecting Myanmar's hundreds of thousands of displaced people. He even dares to use the word "genocide."

"The violations inflicted on the Burmese people in general are undoubtedly crimes against humanity," Horton, 54, said in a recent interview. "But the destruction of the homes, medicines and food of hundreds of thousands of ethnic people may amount to an attempt to commit genocide. If an international court were to arrive at the same conclusion, it would oblige humanitarian intervention. And that could put the Burmese regime in some peril."

Aung Zaw, who edits the Irrawaddy, a magazine published by exiled Burmese from Chiang Mai, believes genocide is a "heavily loaded" word in Myanmar's case.

"The junta targets everyone," he said, "including other Burmans. Do they forcibly relocate and loot and rape? Yes. There is a war going on with the ethnic insurgencies, and obviously civilians will be hurt. But I doubt if the junta has any specific campaign against one race."

(Burmans are the nation's ethnic majority, with an estimated 60 percent of the country's population.)

In any case, "Dying Alive" paints a picture of systematic suppression, drawing on a range of documents, including reports from the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (a collection of Western aid agencies) that map 2,536 forcibly evacuated villages and 526,000 displaced people, in eastern Myanmar alone. It also cites estimates by a British Myanmar specialist, Martin Smith, that since 1948 in the country's conflict areas, millions of people have been uprooted and an average of 10,000 have died every year, mostly from preventable diseases.

"Typically," Horton said, "the army will move into a village, confiscate anything of value, slaughter the animals, and destroy the cooking pots and looms. The village is burned and usually mined. The inhabitants are relocated to a new site, usually with inadequate food and water, where they're forced into labor schemes such as road-building. In the long run, many just can't survive."

In the report, Horton recommends legal action against the junta. There would be at least three ways to go about this, he concludes.

The most potent, and the most difficult to achieve, would be to prosecute the junta in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Although Myanmar is not party to the court, it could be referred to that body by the UN Security Council. Another course would be to prosecute in national courts, like those in the United States or Britain.

Easiest to initiate, Horton believes, would be for another country to bring a "civil" action in the International Court of Justice, also based in The Hague.

In justifying his reference to possible genocide, Horton cites the 1948 Genocide Convention, established after the Nazi Holocaust, and ratified by Myanmar in 1956. The convention identifies one expression of genocide as "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."

"This," he said, "opens the possibility for any signatory nation to submit a case involving genocide or attempted genocide to the International Court of Justice."

Cherif Bassiouni, professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago and an architect of the International Criminal Court, said that in an action initiated by another nation, a ruling by the International Court of Justice to the effect that Myanmar had an obligation to prevent and to stop the crime of genocide would be "rather certain."

Horton's longest trip was a monthlong reconnaissance of Myanmar's Karen State in 2000. The journey began ominously.
"I was only 15 yards into Burma when I learned that the Karen guide I'd arranged to meet had been shot dead," he said. "The soldiers came looking for me that night, and I hid in a hut. God knows how they didn't find me. I still remember the sound of the bayonets being fixed - a terrible sound."

Much of that early trip was taken on the back of a 75-year-old elephant. "That was often the only way I could travel," Horton said. "It's very tough country, and littered with land mines. But the elephant remembered the vanished tracks, from the days before land mines. It just crashed its way through.

"I kept coming across traumatized people - ragged, terrified and on the run. Many of them had wounds. Almost every conversation began with, 'When they came and burned the village.' At one village, two toddlers had been thrown into the flames, and a baby shot in its father's arms."

Horton also ran across numerous Burmese army defectors.

Initially financed in 2000 by the Jubilee Campaign, a British church group, Horton applied in 2002 to the Dutch Ministry of Development Cooperation for additional funds. A well-known aid group (which requests anonymity because of its continuing operations in the region) also supported the project.

The deputy speaker of the British House of Lords, Baroness Cox, visited Horton last year for a briefing in connection with the report. Also in the loop are Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and the Human Rights Committee of the Canadian Parliament.

Over the next six weeks, Horton will meet government officials in London, Ottawa and The Hague. In New York he is to brief the United Nations' "Burma Committee," and in Washington, Feinstein will broker meetings between Horton and congressional leaders.

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