James Ross

MANILA, Philippines - The trial of a Mindanao mayor and other officials for the brutal killing of 57 people in November 2009 has highlighted many of the flaws of the Philippine justice system. But at least there is a system, and hope that the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre will be justly punished. The same cannot be said about Burma, where the military has ruled for nearly 50 years with lawless brutality, committing criminal offenses without ever having to worry about being held to account.

In the course of cementing their rule over all aspects of Burmese life, Burma's military rulers have totally wrecked what had been a credible British-inspired justice system. The judges are not independent, but part of the governmental machinery to suppress dissent. They have handed down decades-long sentences against peaceful protesters and opposition politicians. Zargana, the country's most famous comedian, received a 59-year sentence, later reduced on appeal to 35 years, merely for criticizing the military government's poor response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. About 2,100 political prisoners currently languish in Burma's wretched prisons.

Any thought of Burma's judiciary righting the government's many wrongs are a pipe dream. Ever since independence in 1948, successive Burmese governments have been fighting various ethnic minority rebellions, and abuses against the local civilian populations have multiplied. The Burmese armed forces over the years have committed innumerable summary killings, rapes, and enforced disappearances. They have destroyed countless villages and abused forced laborers and child soldiers. Rebel groups have committed abuses as well, recruiting child soldiers and killing captured soldiers.

It has long been obvious that no one in Burma was going to investigate, let alone prosecute, these serious crimes. Year after year the United Nations General Assembly has issued statements condemning the Burmese military government, but it has stopped short of taking any real action. However, in March 2010, the UN envoy who reports on Burma to the Human Rights Council called for an international commission of inquiry to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.

International support for the idea is picking up speed. The United States, the United Kingdom and several other Western governments have already announced their backing. Japan is seriously considering the idea, but otherwise there hasn't been a peep from other Asian nations, including the Philippines. Maybe this reflects concerns about an international focus on an Asian nation - but Burma's poor human rights record has long been a stain on ASEAN, as the region's governments have increasingly recognized.

The best way to get an international commission of inquiry on Burma off the ground would be for the UN General Assembly to call for it in their annual resolution on Burma: a measure eschewed by the resolution's drafters, the European Union, late last year, despite 19 years of strongly worded resolutions decrying Burma's human rights record.

Some diplomats have tried to justify continued inaction, saying that pressing for a commission would interfere with democratic reforms expected from Burma's November 7 elections. The elections were even more cynically rigged than many people feared, delivering a resounding victory for the military backed party in a climate of intimidation and widespread irregularities. Aung San Suu Kyi was released a week after the elections last year, but the military in Burma have endlessly released and rearrested Suu Kyi, using her freedom as a cynical commodity. Her release, while expected, was also timed to divert attention from the elections, and distract the international community from the plight of all the other political prisoners. Last month then Foreign Secretary Alberto G. Romulo penned an important piece describing the strength and determination of Suu Kyi, "Her example," he wrote. "Shows that there are other ways of dealing with tyranny than violence - something we Filipinos proved to the world in 1986, perhaps our greatest contribution to the history of democracy." Yet despite this poignant reminder, we still fail to see a strong foreign policy on Burma from the Philippine government.

In January Burma went through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in Geneva, a mandatory assessment of all UN member states' human rights record. Many states - including the Philippines - gave Burma an easy passage, in the illusionary hope that change is slowly coming to Burma.

These issues shouldn't get in the way of justice for the victims of abuses. The bottom line is that there are lots of people - democracy activists, displaced ethnic minorities, and everyday Burmese caught up in the government's abuses - who stand to gain if real justice were brought to Burma. For the first time there is a genuine plan under foot for just that. The Philippines, with its recognition of the importance of the rule of law, can play an important role in leading the region in joining this global effort. President Benigno Aquino III, who lost his father at the hands of the government, should understand more than most the importance of obtaining a measure of justice. 

(Lawyer James Ross, Legal and Policy Director at Human Rights Watch, has worked to improve human rights protection in the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia since the mid-1980s.)