A war-crimes commission could help lead Burma to democracy

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In his Aug. 21 op-ed, "Hold off on Burma," David I. Steinberg argued that a United Nations commission of inquiry into war crimes in Burma will only salve Western consciences and do the Burmese people no good. He worries that an inquiry "will hinder negotiations and relations" with the "new government" that will be elected later this year, so the United States should instead "hold off."

In fact, the government will not be new; the military will control 25 percent of legislative seats as well as key ministries. More ominously, the military will be constitutionally immune from civilian control and will have power to respond to threats to "national stability" however it wants. Recall that during the Saffron Revolution, the junta gunned down peacefully protesting monks as threats to national stability.

A commission of inquiry would hinder relations with the "new" government only if that government is controlled by those accused. Mr. Steinberg is really saying that we should not offend the authors of the atrocities because then they won't talk to us. But they won't talk to us now; the United States decided to support the inquiry only after the junta refused repeatedly to meet with senior diplomats to talk about reform.

A commission of inquiry would help the people of Burma in several ways. First, it would cost the junta hard-liners some political support at home and abroad, making a transition to democracy more possible. Second, an inquiry into the conduct of higher-ranking officers would make lower-ranking officers think twice before committing atrocities themselves. Third, an inquiry might be the first step in bringing justice to the victims of the junta's atrocities -- victims who, sadly, make no appearance in Mr. Steinberg's analysis.

David Clair Williams, Bloomington, Ind.

The writer is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University.


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