BURMA/MYANMAR: New report urges closer study of Burma’s “demented” legal system

(Hong Kong, December 6, 2007) International organisations and human rights groups need to better study Burma’s “demented” courts, police and local councils to understand how they operate to support its military regime if they are to contribute to meaningful discussion on systemic issues there, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) said in a new report released on Thursday.

“Just like someone suffering from a serious mental illness, a legal system suffering from a lack of rationality must be properly studied before it can be treated,” Basil Fernando, executive director of the Hong Kong-based regional group, said.

“Unfortunately, at the moment most groups and individuals concerned about human rights in Burma haven’t examined its institutional neuroses in any detail, which means that they are in no position to make useful proposals about what needs to be done,” Fernando said.

The 136-page report, “Burma, political psychosis & legal dementia”, was issued especially to mark International Human Rights Day, which falls on December 10, he said.

It has also been timed to coincide with the conclusion of a special session on Burma at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next week.

“We will be distributing the report widely at the council with a view to raising the level of familiarity with human rights problems in Burma and going beyond narrow political debates and pointless numbers games,” Fernando said.

“UN agencies and international groups often talk about ‘awareness raising’, but when it comes to Burma it is their awareness that needs to be raised,” he added.

The study is the first to closely examine problems of criminal justice in relation to violations of rights in Burma through individual cases.

It pointedly eschews making recommendations on the protests of 2007, preferring instead to document and place these with reference to the real conditions in the country for the purpose of better-informed policymaking.

However, it places the recent events against the backdrop of work done by the ALRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Human Rights Commission over a number of years.

It also examines ten cases of “legal dementia” in detail, as well as highlighting the case of six human rights defenders imprisoned in July, and detailing an interview with the mother of a young man killed by special drug squad police in 2006.

The special report is published in the October-December edition of the ALRC’s periodical, article 2, and is available on its website: www.article2.org.

A PDF version can be downloaded directly: http://www.article2.org/pdf/v06n05.pdf

It is the first extensive report on Burma published by the ALRC and the second special report published in article 2 this year.

In January it released a comprehensive report on criminal justice and extrajudicial killing in the Philippines. That report is available, along with all others, on the article 2 website.

Extracts from the foreword of the latest report follow.

Basil Fernando, Executive Director, Asian Human Rights Commission & Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong

While scientists and health practitioners have found ways to cure or alleviate many forms of mental illness, when it comes to political lunacy we have made few advances, and least of all in Asia.

As in the case of an otherwise psychologically healthy person who goes through a period of trauma, treatments can be found where a relatively sane political system falls into a temporary crisis. But when a country is burdened with stark raving political lunacy, what sort of remedy is there to be had?

Unfortunately, there are many countries in Asia whose political set ups are suffering from chronic mental disorders that have so far proved beyond the ability of anyone seeking to treat them.

Without the slightest hesitation it can be said that Burma is one such country. This unfortunate fact has been made all the more obvious by the events of this August and September 2007, when a steep hike in the cost of basic fuels precipitated mass protests the likes of which had not been seen for 20 years.

Taken together, the uprising and its aftermath are likely to cause a great deal of confusion among many people who have had the good fortune not to have been born or raised in a country that has succumbed to such political insanity.

Some would expect that such a large-scale event would necessarily produce some kind of change, as it would have had it occurred in their own backyard. Others will wrongly assert that it apparently failed to obtain immediate change for want of adequate support or planning among the people of Burma themselves.

And then there are some who will hunt around for explanations that fit with their prefabricated notions of the world, neocolonialists and everyone else in it. Rather than try to understand the event for what it actually was, they will find it much easier to write the whole thing off as something cooked up by some foreigners with a few million dollars to spend.

Such reactions naturally arise among confused persons trying to demonstrate some sort of knowledge about complicated things that happen contrary to their expectations, in the same way that when people encounter others who may not behave according to their norms they also seek to come up with easy explanations that fit with their personal experiences rather than try to put themselves in the others’ shoes.

However, for those of us who are more interested to really try to understand what has happened in Burma in recent months, it is necessary to tackle political lunacy and its consequences head-on. Over forty years of uncompromising military rule there leaves us no alternative.

From studying and documenting these cases over the last few years, we can also conclude that what happened in Burma this September was a daily contest writ large.

Every day, people in Burma encounter things in their normal life that force them into a conflict with one authority or another, with someone connected with an authority or another. It may be anything from a dispute over a plot of land to a public gripe about an empty stomach: anything at all that suggests dissatisfaction implying maladministration. But as these people are forced into conflict, step-by-step they become entangled in the web of irrationality that hangs over every part of public life; what starts as a minor irritation becomes a nightmare.

Naturally, no one accepts such a condition happily. Out of sheer frustration and necessity one or another may be pushed into an act of protest. Discontent may take a larger shape and spill out publicly in the way that it did during recent months, as an expression of immense need—to recover from psychosis and enter into a more organised way of life (not the false appearance of organisation created by the politically insane) where some degree of rationality is possible.

Correct diagnosis is the first requirement for effective intervention. Where political insanity is treated as a mild malaise, a curable condition, not only the sufferer but also the third party is acting irrationally. To begin we must acknowledge what we are dealing with. Acknowledgment of political insanity will at least save us the time and trouble of having to deal with quacks peddling generic remedies for everything from failed elections to aborted uprisings. If we can at least free ourselves from such nonsense we can get down to the serious work. As rational people dealing with the politically insane, this is our foremost obligation.

Document Type : Press Release
Document ID : ALRC-PL-004-2007
Countries : Burma (Myanmar), Hong Kong,