Entering the rule-of-law minefield
By Roger Mitton | Thursday, 21 May 2015
It has become common for leaders across the region to pontificate about a need to return to the rule of law, but exactly what they mean in practice is never fully explained.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addresses supporters during a rally at Mudon township in Mon State on May 17. Photo: AFP
Most recently, the rule of law motive has been invoked by Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to provide grounds for restoring capital punishment.
This year, after Jokowi aborted a four-year moratorium on executions, 14 men convicted of drug offences have been subjected to the rule of law and shot through the heart.
All were convicted of capital offences and sentenced to death after a long series of trials and appeals. So clearly the rule of law was followed to its proper conclusion.
Another 135 convicted criminals still sit on Indonesia’s death row and will surely soon meet the same fate.
Of course, there was an outcry by death penalty opponents, especially those who had thought the democratically elected Jokowi was a nice, kind liberal guy, in the mould of former Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai.
It was a serious miscalculation. Jokowi is a small-town country boy who has risen meteorically from being mayor of Solo to governor of Jakarta and now the nation’s president in just three years. But he’s no soft touch.
A better comparison would be with Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong or Myanmar’s opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – both similar democrats with a common touch and an iron fist.
As for criticism of his decision to uphold the verdict of the courts, Jokowi called it an affront to Indonesia’s “legal sovereignty” and said he would follow the rule of law and instruct the firing squads to do their duty.
Naturally, his rebuttal infuriated critics even more. In a coruscating essay, The New Yorker magazine railed about “the nationalist chest thumping of Indonesian President Joko Widodo”.
Methinks not. But these folks don’t regard obeying the rule of law as synonymous with enforcing judicial decisions – at least, not if the laws or sentences are deemed by them as unfair or unpalatable.
In that situation, they think it is fine to disregard verdicts and sentences, and instead substitute kinder, gentler punishments.
It is a curious attitude, but perhaps no more curious than that shown by many leaders who often exploit and demean the rule of law, while steadfastly claiming fealty to it.
There is no doubt, for instance, that Jokowi authorised the executions not only to establish Indonesia’s legal sovereignty, but also to boost his sagging popularity and distract minds from an economic downturn.
Likewise, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy members regurgitate their rule-of-law mantra when they want to avoid answering questions about sectarian violence and the mass murder of Muslims.
As the election approaches, however, they may well find themselves pushed into coming clean about just what they mean about wanting to establish the rule of law in Myanmar.
If they mean rooting out inefficiency, prejudice and corruption in the police and judiciary, all well and good; but if they mean applying the law without fear or favour, they may find they have entered a snake pit.
For while there have been no executions in Myanmar since 1988, capital punishment remains on the books and death sentences are still handed down for crimes ranging from murder to treason.
Amnesties commuting these sentences to life imprisonment are regularly granted, most recently by President U Thein Sein three years ago.
So, in a way, Myanmar today is like Indonesia was in 2012, when there was a moratorium and no one had been executed for several years.
Then along came Jokowi, a new non-military leader who needed to cement his credentials and show he could maintain social stability. Out with the moratorium, in with the firing squads.
It is not impossible that something similar could happen here if a largely civilian, NLD-led government, helmed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, assumes power later this year.
After all, voters may rightly ask: If you stand for the rule of law, why do you allow those who riot, rape, pillage and kill avoid the death sentences that the courts have handed down?
It’s a tricky one. As is the question of trials for military men who usurped power and committed crimes against the state.
Recall that in 1990, shortly after the NLD’s landslide election victory, the party’s strategist, U Kyi Maung, was asked if there would be a war crimes tribunal for the generals.
He said there would not, but then he added, “Of course, people like [General] Khin Nyunt might reasonably feel themselves pretty insecure.”
His remark spooked the top brass. The current head of the Union Election Commission, former general U Tin Aye, later said they had not handed power to the NLD because it had threatened a Nuremberg-type war trial.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself told me, “We have always said that we are not out for vengeance. We haven’t discussed war crimes at all.”
But many people have because they truly believe in the rule of law and the need to hold people accountable for past crimes.
Last November, a Harvard Law School report claimed that military officers in Kayin State may have committed war crimes as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The alleged crimes, such as ordering mortars to be fired at villages, slaughtering fleeing civilians, destroying homes and laying land mines indiscriminately, were said to be “too grave to be ignored”.
Yet after speaking to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association, said he was disturbed by her strong aversion to charging the military officers responsible.
“As we have seen time and time again, ignoring past crimes is short-sighted. They come back to haunt society,” Mr Ellis said.
So again, we confront that perplexing question: Is the rule of law really going to be enforced and thus people executed and generals brought to trial?
Or, unlike Jokowi, is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi just playing politics and going to allow murderers and war criminals escape proper justice?
Ecotourism on the cards
By Zaw Win Than | Monday, 10 November 2014
Ecotourism is set to receive a boost as the government prepares to finalise a plan to link tourism with conservation. They say this will help promote protected areas, from Lampi Marine National Park in the south to Hkakaborazi National Park in the north, and will also provide local people with jobs.
“The plan will ensure conservation of our protected areas for future generations,” said U Htay Aung, Union Minister of Hotels and Tourism, at the first national consultation workshop, which was organised with the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry.
Paul Rogers, consultant to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) based in Nepal, said, “Ecotourism will strengthen the relationship between tourism and protected area management by directing revenue toward conservation efforts.” ICIMOD is providing technical support.
“Measures are under way for ecotourism to be developed in the buffer zones of protected areas,” said U Win Naing Thaw, the director of the Department of Forestry.
The goal is to ensure that tourism in protected areas will support biodiversity, conservation and community-based income generation, and strengthen the management of protected areas.
ICIMOD tourism specialist Marjorie van Strien said an intergovernmental Ecotourism Task Force had been established to draw upon the expertise of senior officials from 15 departments. Consultations have been held in Putao, Natmataung, Lampi, Mandalay and Yangon.