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International justice, global politics and Myanmar’s security sector: why international support for internal reform is still needed

25 November 2019 Kim Jolliffe International justice, global politics and Myanmar’s security sector: why international support for internal reform is still needed

Despite some progress on reforming security and justice institutions in Myanmar, Kim Jolliffe argues that international support is still needed to end human rights abuses and ongoing conflict in the country.

This month there have been several advances towards international criminal action against Myanmar’s government and military for the latter’s violent attacks against the Rohingya and other minorities. Advocacy groups and numerous nation states have been calling for such action since the late 1980s, but successes have been few and far between. International justice could be crucial not just to providing survivors of abuse with the recognition and reparations that they deserve. It could also help to develop international justice mechanisms necessary to deter future state crimes across the world.

Nonetheless, accountability alone will not automatically solve the centuries-old problems that drive state-led violence in the country. Ending human rights abuse will depend on comprehensive reform of the internal security forces and justice institutions to ensure they are focused on keeping people safe and are accountable to a well-informed and civically engaged public. While this remains a multi-decade challenge at best, some progress has been made since 2010 and a wide range of organisations and individuals in Myanmar are continuing to push for meaningful change. Although the international community lacks a strong mandate in this area, there are ways it can help.

In 2016 and 2017, the world watched in horror as the Myanmar Armed Forces (the Tatmadaw) responded to the emergence of a small number of militia claiming to represent the long-oppressed Rohingya minority, by unleashing a devastating campaign of violence against civilian communities from the group. The army allegedly torched over 200 villages, raped or gang raped hundreds of women and killed thousands of civilians, including children, using some of the most grotesque methods seen by any military in modern times. These events followed a pattern of routine and systematic violence by state security forces against civilians that has been ongoing since the 1960s, if not earlier. Away from conflict areas, the police, prisons, courts and intelligence agencies, which are all of colonial origin, have been routinely used to control the population through fear in order to block all forms of political resistance and to keep military abuses hidden.  

While there is no question that the perpetrators of international criminal acts (in any country) need to be brought to justice through an authoritative and impartial process, punitive action alone will not address the many underlying and structural drivers of conflict. Just as arrests and jail sentences do not rid inner-city neighbourhoods of crime without complementary policies to improve education and social services, issuing indictments against military leaders will not miraculously transform Myanmar’s violent and corrupt security forces into service-oriented professionals. That is assuming such indictments are even achievable – a global effort to penalise the Tatmadaw has been ongoing for 30 years, but has yet to see any concrete successes. 

Admittedly, addressing the root causes of violence by enabling the reform of the Myanmar state is no straightforward task either. International governments and organisations lack the kind of security sector reform mandate that they have had following atrocities in other countries, particularly where an interim UN administration or international coalition is in place. Such a scenario is unthinkable in Myanmar, where the government is neither on the brink of collapse nor universally treated as a rogue state – it enjoys significant support from China, Russia and most countries in the region.

Nonetheless, international criminal action must still be complemented with more constructive assistance, both for carefully targeted government initiatives and for other institutions such as education providers, civil society, the media and policy institutes. While direct training for the armed forces remains risky and largely unproductive, much can be done to work with pro-democrats to shift the domestic balance of power and slowly remodel norms and institutions.

Transformational security and justice reform in Myanmar will only be possible as a result of internal political change and will only be sustainable if it is propelled by internal political forces. While these politics are inherently messy and endlessly frustrating, engaging with them remains the only game in town for all organisations and individuals seeking to bring about meaningful progress towards peace, human rights and democracy.

Myanmar’s coercive state apparatus was originally built for the sole purpose of defending British commercial interests and quelling local resistance. Following the Second World War, it then underwent a rushed independence process before being eventually inherited by an ultra-nationalist military elite, led by ideological independence fighters who were mostly in their thirties. Through successive regimes between 1962 and 2011, the military established control over the prisons, courts and intelligence agencies, using them primarily against political enemies. Military leaders became corrupt and paranoid about foreign invasion, while their army became increasingly violent and steeped in doctrine that was developed internally with very little influence from civilians of any kind.

The military now sits alongside elected civilians in a hybrid system of government that gives it significant continued influence over the security and justice sectors and freedom to conduct ample business. It has used this power to continue its violent campaigns against civilians across the country and to instil fear in anyone who dares to criticise it or challenge its role in government.

It is of utmost importance that civilians, including politicians, lawyers, civil society, educators, journalists and others, increase their power in relation to the military so they are able to lead and oversee the security and justice sectors in the interests of the diverse public. As outlined in Saferworld’s new report, ‘Democratising Myanmar’s security sector: enduring legacies and a long road ahead’, change is needed in three main areas:

  1. Developing the mandate of elected civilians – so that democratically accountable officials are responsible for security and justice affairs.
  2. Transforming the security culture – so that it is focused on serving the public interest and keeping people safe, and is representative and gender sensitive.
  3. Protecting and building civic space – so that educational institutions, civil society, policy institutes and the media are ensuring transparency and providing pressure and oversight.

As summarised in an earlier blog, moderate but important progress has been made in all three areas in recent years, but has been inevitably slow given the deeply imprinted legacy of colonialism, war and military rule. The intention of the report is to frame the nature of this challenge and to help outline a constructive way forward. It is hoped that organisations and individuals, both in Myanmar and internationally, will use it to gain a deeper understanding of the complex internal politics that underlie ongoing violence in the country and to envision ways to assist.

While efforts by international justice institutions will continue and may remain the most dominant approach voiced by many nation states, there is still critical work to be done to address the underlying drivers of conflict and violence in Myanmar. Careful and targeted international assistance will continue to be vital in parallel with calls for accountability.

Photo: Hkun Lat.