By Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams
With the expectation of elections looming on the horizon, it is a critical moment for Burma. General Than Shwe and the Burmese military have promised the people of Burma that they will head for the polls for the first time in twenty years this fall.
However, with the recent dissolution of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy—and her continued imprisonment—it is hardly expected that said elections will be either free or fair.
As the list of human rights abuses perpetrated by the military junta grows, so do the calls from within Burma for peace, justice, and democracy. Women are at the forefront of this thriving movement for a free Burma. Despite enduring some of the most atrocious and violent crimes, the women of Burma speak out and risk their lives on behalf of their brothers, sisters, and communities.
In March of this year, I sat as a judge in the first-ever International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Burma, held in New York City. I listened as 12 women from Burma shared their harrowing testimonies of life under the brutal military junta. These brave women described in detail sexual violence, torture, forced labor and portering, imprisonment, and forced relocation.
Chang Chang spoke of being attacked and gang raped in her village by a group of Burmese military soldiers. As if that was not torture enough, she was then shamed and expelled by her community when news of the attack spread.
Naw Ruth Tha described long days when soldiers forced her to carry heavy loads on her back, and long nights being raped by the same soldiers. She was five months pregnant at the time.
Ma Pu Sein wept as she recalled the soldiers who burnt down her entire village.
Their stories have sadly become all too familiar in Burma. In the words of one of the testifiers, “I share with you a common story that in its commonness has in time become normal.”
Brutality on this level should never be accepted as normal.
We held this people’s tribunal, co-sponsored by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Women’s League of Burma, because no court of law, no national or international forum, is willing to hear and respond to these women. This is not because the survivors have kept quiet. On the contrary, there is a growing portfolio of interviews, testimony and documentation of the gross crimes and violations of human rights committed by the junta. Yet cries for justice have been met with silence.
How can the world stay silent in the face of such inhumanity and blatant disregard for international law?
The Tribunal placed the military regime’s widespread campaign of oppression, fear, and violence under the microscope. The testimonies we heard reconfirmed that the regime’s actions amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and human rights violations; such crimes are subject to universal jurisdiction. Not only has the regime failed to exercise its “responsibility to protect” the peoples of Burma, but the international community has as well.
Based on our findings, my fellow judges and I made recommendations to the Burmese military regime; to states in the Asia-Pacific region; to the international community, especially the United Nations; and to civil society.
The International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women of Burma has added momentum to the existing international efforts to bring justice, peace, and democracy to Burma.
A few days after the Tribunal we shared our findings and recommendations, including our call that the UN establish a Commission of Inquiry regarding Burma, with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and various members of the Security Council. More importantly, we shared the testimony of Chang Chang, Naw Ruth Tha, Ma Pu Sein, and the nine other women who bravely shared their stories with us.
One week later, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, recommended that the UN establish a Commission of Inquiry into the international crimes and human rights abuses by the Burmese government.
My fellow judge and laureate, Shirin Ebadi, was recently at the first review conference of the International Criminal Court. There she echoed our calls for Burma to be referred to the ICC. It is past time for the UN Security Council—the only international body that can take binding action with regard to the regime—to use their power to respond to the Burmese junta’s threat to peace and security.
The international community must act to confront Burma’s impunity. In fact, perhaps fearing or anticipating the long trek to the International Criminal Court, the junta seems to be stepping up its crackdown of any political opposition. For once the international community must take responsibility—and not simply look the other way.
The report of the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women of Burma was recently released to policy-makers, UN officials, and the media worldwide. With this report, and the ongoing work of organizations like the Women’s League of Burma, the cries for a free and just Burma continue to be amplified. It is now up to the rest of us to decide how much longer we can ignore these cries. It is time for the international community to finally act to help bring the restoration of legitimate democracy stolen from Burma twenty years ago.