The Burmese military’s response to allegations that soldiers gang-raped and murdered two Kachin women last month provides a sobering reminder that the country’s most powerful institution remains beyond the scope of public scrutiny and independent investigation. In late January the military published a statement denying involvement in the attack and threatening legal action against any media outlets that carry the allegations first raised by activists and community leaders in Kachin state. The investigation that did take place occurred after the site was sealed off to bar anyone who was not part of the investigation from entering. This would be normal procedure, were it not for the fact that the investigation team was comprised of police and military personnel – two entities with a patchy track record of forensic examinations of alleged military abuses.
It is not the first such instance of media intimidation following claims of extra-judicial killings by the army. As Fortify Rights notes in a statement, Brang Shawng, a 49-year-old ethnic Kachin man, faces at least two years in jail for filing a complaint to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) alleging the army was responsible for the death of his 14-year-old daughter. The lawsuit against him appeared tactical, in more ways than one, given the military has diverted what should be an investigation into the killing of the girl to an investigation into the actions of her father.
What is troubling about the two cases is the breathless support the military has received from President Thein Sein, whose office repeated the threats directed at journalists. It signals the continuation of a long-standing symbiosis between the two institutions, one that any genuine democratization process should necessarily seek to undo. It also severely limits any chance of an independent investigation into the allegations – even that a truly independent body exists in Burma that stands a remote chance of being sanctioned by the government to carry this out.
Implicit in the military’s threats towards the media is the expectation that journalists will not report on abuses. That expectation is born of decades of control of the media by the junta, which sought to precondition journalists to avoid matters of such sensitivity. Doing so would induce a self-censorship that frees the military up to do what is necessary to maintain its predominance. Two recent developments however have complicated this: one is that space has emerged for Burmese to challenge those processes, to a point; the other is that several years of cautious liberalization has meant the military’s raw power – namely its ability to use violence or the threat of violence without fear of punishment – has been constrained, albeit it in a very minor way.
Despite this, it can still resort to more subtle and institutionalized modes of intimidation – namely threat of punitive action. This is a prime example of why reform needs to be all encompassing, given how power in a country like Burma emanates from a single entity and is filtered through institutions. The military can therefore still use the cover of a corrupted and co-opted judiciary to carry out its work.
The key concern of the military in all this however isn’t the possibility that soldiers could be brought to justice, but rather the newfound sense of agency displayed at a grassroots level. While a free media doesn’t yet exist in Burma – these threats, issued by both military and “civilian” authorities, reflect this – the audacity of journalists and activists has meant the story has made it out of Burma, and thus the persistently criminal nature of the army, unbowed by reforms, is on show for all to see. It will continue its efforts to obfuscate whatever abuses it carries out – but those efforts, if given the light of day, are themselves evidence of where we’re currently at with the transition.