The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Courage and Cowardice in the Courtroom
Friday, March 23, 2012

In Burma, it takes real nerve to accuse the military of anything. That's why it came as a surprise to many when the family of a Kachin woman last seen on Oct. 28 filed a lawsuit against soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 321 for her alleged abduction. The husband and father of the missing woman, 28-year-old Sumlut Roi Ja, said that the soldiers arrested all three—supposedly on suspicion of having links to the Kachin Independence Army—but only the two men managed to escape.

When the Union Supreme Court in Naypyidaw agreed in early February to hear the case, it seemed like another breakthrough—not as dramatic, perhaps, as the release of hundreds of political prisoners less than a month earlier, but still a significant development in a country where the military has acted with impunity for decades.

This week, however, it became clear again that Burma's courts are not ready to take on their real masters—the army men who have turned the country's judiciary into a ruthless tool of the state apparatus.

According to various reports, the case against the accused soldiers was summarily dropped after officials from the army’s Northern Regional Military Command testified on their behalf on Feb. 23. The court deemed the testimony of the two Kachin men “insufficient,” but readily accepted the soldiers' denial of any wrongdoing (backed up by the authority of their superior officers) at face value. No investigation has taken place, and the woman remains missing and is presumed dead by her relatives.

It is impossible to believe that the family made the decision to go to court lightly. What makes this case all the more appalling is the claim of the family's lawyers that they were not even informed of the decision to drop the case, which they learned of only this week. This apparent show of disdain for the plaintiffs, coupled with the craven attitude of the court toward the army, is an insult to anyone who believes that judges should be arbiters of justice, and not mere agents of the state.

Next week, a court in Rangoon is scheduled to hear another case—that of the Ministry of Mines against The Voice journal, which stands accused of libel for publishing the findings of a government audit that revealed evidence of rampant corruption within the ministry. The charge is patently absurd: If the ministry wants to dispute the findings, it should take the matter up with the auditor-general, and not a private journal.

The fact that the court has agreed to proceed with the case shows once again the willingness of Burma's judges to bend to the will of higher authorities. Until they begin to show some of the same courage demonstrated by the family of Sumlut Roi Ja, there is little chance that they will be able to redeem themselves and their profession in the eyes of Burmese citizens.

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