BURMA: Turning complainants into criminals in Burma

The journey from section 374 to section 500 of the Burmese Penal Code doesn’t take very long. Under section 374, state officials ordering forced labour–which was finally prohibited in 1999–can be subject to complaints in the courts. In principle, an impartial and independent investigation and judicial inquiry should follow. In reality, no impartial and independent investigative and judicial bodies exist in Burma. Ko Khin Zaw and U Ohn Myint discovered this when they made a section 374 complaint in July after being jailed for failing to do sentry duty at a village monastery in the delta region, west of the capital. After the complaint was summarily thrown out of the court, the same judge then entertained a complaint of criminal defamation under section 500 by the vengeful local administrative officials. On October 7, she found the two villagers guilty, and offered them a fine or six-months’ imprisonment. In an act of defiance, the two men chose jail. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has since written to Hina Jilani, UN Special Representative for human rights defenders, pressing her to take up the case.

Other villagers are also coming forward and risking their lives to lodge complaints of forced labour against local officials. The complaints are in most instances well documented and credible: deserving of proper investigation. Since it established an office in Burma during 2002, the International Labour Office (ILO) has attempted to set in place the means by which such allegations can be properly investigated and the public and state authorities alike made aware of the prohibition on forced labour and what it entails. While the ILO has had some success in creating public awareness, it has been unsuccessful at establishing the means for proper inquiries and prosecution of offenders. To date, the sole function of the committees and teams established to comply with the ILO directives seems to have been to absolve any accused government officials accused of wrongdoing; not one person is known to have been successfully prosecuted for ordering forced labour.

But the problem is that forced labour is not the problem. The real problem is the complete absence of the rule of law in Burma, where citizens are unable to make any complaint against state authorities at any level, on any grounds, without facing some kind of retribution. In the absence of the rule of law, persons making complaints against government officials can expect only to be punished for attempts to assert their rights, whether these be regarding forced labour, or any other institution or practice in the country. After being allegedly raped by a local official in November 2002, for instance, Ma San San Aye and Ma Aye Mi San were sentenced to four-years’ hard labour in October 2003 for bringing false allegations against a public servant. Although the AHRC issued an appeal on this case, and brought it to the attention of domestic and international authorities, no news has been received of the fate of the two girls. Whether Ko Khin Zaw, U Ohn Myint, Ma San San Aye or Ma Aye Mi San, all have been turned from complainants into criminals through the manipulations of the accused authorities and complicit state agents.

That a victim of a rights violation has no channel for effective redress is in itself a major problem; that in Burma this situation is compounded by punitive action against persons attempting to exercise their rights under domestic law is of extreme concern. The evidence that exists at present is of a growing trend towards such practices, and one that interested international agencies must properly account for if they are to have any effect in curtailing the rampant abuse of human rights that persists in Burma. Above all else, they must be in a position to offer genuine protection to victims whom they advise to take cases to the courts: without protection from powerful local officials, the complainants end up in jail. A few people’s lives are ruined, and the wider public gets the message that to complain is both dangerous and meaningless. Once that point is reached, the credibility of concerned agencies will be lost, and no amount of public awareness raising will correct the damage done.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-38-2004
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),
Issues : Labour rights,