Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Rights group to probe Burma war crimes

By P. Parameswaran in Washington - October 01, 2008

AN independent US group is to carry out unprecedented studies to determine whether Burma's military rulers, accused of rampant human rights abuses, have committed international crimes.

The Centre for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University's school of law said it would launch the research based on anecdotal human rights evidence of "severe mistreatment" of marginalised ethnic groups by the military junta.

"At this stage of the project, I can't honestly say that there are international crimes," the centre's executive director, David Williams, told AFP by telephone.

"What I can say is there may be, and part of our goal would be to gather the evidence and try to come out with some objective conclusions about whether there are or not," he said.

The centre's goal, he said, was to make focused research "in areas where perhaps it is most likely that international crimes were committed".

Only the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) can determine whether international crimes, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been committed by any individual or group.

So far, Professor Williams said, there has been no institutional focus on possible international crimes committed by Burma's junta, which imposed a bloody crackdown of pro-democracy protests in September last year that was condemned worldwide.

The crackdown - according to United Nations figures - left 31 people dead and 74 others missing, and resulted in thousands of arrests.

The military rulers had also come under international fire and were called "heartless" by some humanitarian groups for initially not allowing foreign aid into the country when a cyclone left 138,000 people dead or missing in May.

Burma also houses more than 2100 political prisoners, including democracy icon and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.

Prof Williams said that although the ICC had not initiated any study on the military junta's record so far, "ours might be a good place for them to get started".

"It might help the various investigators know where to go and what allegations to examine and so forth," he said.

When asked whether in his personal opinion some of the junta's actions could be deemed as international crimes, Prof Williams said: "What I might be able to say is that it looks to me, in my professional opinion, like there is a good chance that it is.

"And it makes sense therefore to bring a prosecution because there is enough evidence that a court should be able to see it," he pointed out.

The university group's staff had been for the last six years helping ethnic groups inside Burma - at their request - draw up constitutional reforms in their struggle to win greater freedom and rights.

Law professor David Williams had smuggled himself into Burma on various occasions and worked on constitutional reforms with the Karen ethnic group, waging the world's longest running civil war against the government since 1947.

"I am hearing endless stories about how the military government is murdering villagers, it's blowing up rice paddies so that they dry out, it's setting fires to villages, it's laying mines in those villages so that when the people come back some of them get blown up," he said.

"The result is that they have to move often to hills and find a new place to build a village and start growing rice. That means in a relatively short period of time there is famine because old rice paddies have to be abandoned."

Prof Williams said while he did not witness the Burma military units attacking the Karen guerrilla resistance units, he saw "evidence of the military going after the civilian population".

"That's just the tip of the iceberg in itself and that doesn't constitute conclusive evidence of an international crime but it makes you think," he said. - Article from: Agence France-Presse

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