BURMA/MYANMAR: Prosecutor concludes that case against soldiers for Ko Par Gyi killing “erroneous”

On 21 March 2016 the commander of the Kyaikmayaw Township Police Station in Burma, or Myanmar, sent a letter to Ma Thandar, the wife of Ko Par Gyi, whom soldiers killed in a remote part of the country’s east in 2014. As the Asian Human Rights Commission has described previously (AHRC-STM-075-2015AHRC-UAC-145-2014), both a civilian court and a military inquiry found that the soldiers had killed Ko Par Gyi, as did the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission. Nevertheless, the police officer wrote in his letter that the attempt to open a criminal case against the soldiers had been found by the public prosecutor to be “erroneous” and therefore the case had been closed.

Thus, in 2016 the people of Burma find themselves incurious conditions. On the one hand, they observetremendous progress in respect to their civil and political rights, with the election of a new government comprising in large part of former political prisoners and other people who for decades struggled for democracy and human rights. On the other hand, military personnel at all levels continue to enjoy blanket impunity for violent crimes committed against civilians, and the military institution treats with contempt any attempts to have it held accountable for any form of wrongdoing, no matter how egregious.

The inquiries that followed Ko Par Gyi’s killing broke new ground in two respects. First, under intense public pressure the military acquiesced to having his body dug up from the shallow grave in scrubland where the soldiers had buried it, leading to a post-mortem inquest in a civilian court. Second, the newly established national rights commission for the first time conducted an inquiry into military violence on its own, and released its findings publicly.

Both processes left no doubt that the military had abducted, illegally detained and killed Ko Par Gyi, and had then attempted to cover up the killing. Furthermore, when the facts of the case came out, the army attempted to distort the narrative by concocting allegations that the killed man was an insurgent; allegations that were shown to have been baseless.

Nevertheless, it is not the army or the soldiers involved who are described in the policeman’s letter to Ma Thandar as having acted “erroneously” but, ironically, the policeman who opened a criminal case after the post-mortem inquiry was completed, and the wife of the deceased, herself now also an elected member of the legislature, who pressed hard for criminal charges to be brought.

What this perverse outcome serves to do is to remind people in Burma that, despite all of the progress made on their rights in certain fields, it remains the army’s prerogative to decide what happens to its own personnel. The notion of civilian oversight of the armed forces, for wrongdoing of any sort—criminal or otherwise—continues to be anathema to Burma’s military men.

The killing of Ko Par Gyi is by no means the only one in which soldiers have murdered with impunity in recent times. Others that the AHRC has already issued appeals on include the killing of a young man in Pyay, central Burma, by three soldiers who had absconded from their base (AHRC-UAU-015-2014); the abduction, rape and murder of a young mother by active soldiers in 2011 (AHRC-UAC-240-2011); and, the rape and murder of two teachers in the country’s north in 2015 (AHRC-UAC-005-2015). In each of those cases too, it was “erroneous” of the families and supporters of the victims to think that they might hold soldiers accountable for their violent crimes against civilians.

But Ko Par Gyi’s caseis different from the others because it representedthe best opportunity in many years to establish a precedent and draw some kind of line on the impunity of the army. For the first time we saw extensive civilian involvement in the efforts to recover the body of someone killed by the army while in its custody, and establish the basic facts of what happened: factsthat the army itself did not contest.

Yet despite the opportunities that the case presented, we find ourselves at the same place today in the case of Ko Par Gyi as in all other cases of its type, with military personnel again getting away with murder. Although the prosecution of soldiers for criminal violence is now conceivable to people in Burma, the closing of the case against the killers of Ko Par Gyiindicates that it is still far from possible. Even in the dramatically changed political conditions that the country finds itself in today, the standards that apply to soldiers continue to differ fundamentally from those that apply to everyone else in the country.

It need not be so. With a new government in office and new hopes and expectations for human rights buoyed by the presence in the legislature of so many people who know only too well the experience of abuse suffered at the hands of Burma’s military, we ought to expect better. We can and must expect better.

Therefore, the Asian Human Rights Commission urges that the Government of Myanmar have the criminal case against the soldiers responsible for killing Ko Par Gyi reopened. Specifically, personnel of the Myanmar Police Force’s Criminal Investigation Department should be assigned to conduct a full inquiry and lodge charges in a civilian court against those persons found responsible for the killing.

Recognizing that the case of Ko Par Gyi has the potential to serve both as a legal precedent and as a major political achievement in bringing to an end the decades of impunity that soldiers in Burma at all levels have enjoyed for violence committed on civilians, the new government must devote all available resources, be they material, financial or moral, to its success. Let it never again be said in Burma that to bring a case against a soldier in a criminal court is “erroneous”.