Ad Hoc Commission on the Depayin Massacre (Burma)
In every society, whenever such a heinous crime that impacts on several thousand people occurs, the respective governments, in cooperation with the international community or by themselves, usually investigate the incidents. They seek to find the perpetrators and their mastermind, and take proper legal action. However, as of now no national or international commission has been formed to thoroughly investigate the incident in Depayin township.
Without investigating the incident thoroughly and effectively, the State Peace and Development Council military junta simply blamed the NLD for such an atrocious incident, through its press conference held at 4pm, 31 May 2003.
In that formal press conference, the SPDC officials publicized the following:
- The members of the NLD, including U Tin Oo led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, incited unrest with the crowd of people, and due to their acts, there occurred a traffic jam and instability.
- At the scene where the incident occurred, about 5000 people were present to demonstrate against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
- Clashes broke out between those in support of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and those opposed to her.
- As a result of the clashes, four people died, 50 were injured, and eight vehicles and nine motorcycles were destroyed.
- The injured were admitted to hospital for medical treatment.
The aforementioned points can be analyzed as follows:
- Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo never made a trip to Depayin town before; never incited the local Depayin people; and, instability never occurred in Depayin as a consequence of the actions of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo before this incident. As such, it is quite evident that the accusation of the SPDC against the NLD leaders is groundless.
- The presence of 5000 people at the killing field, as claimed by the junta, indicates that it was a premeditated attack. The closest village, Kyi, is a very small village. The number of dwellings there is not more than a hundred houses. As such, the whole population in the village may be less than 500. The number of villagers from Kyi village and NLD members and supporters from the convoy of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were not more than 1000 in total. The villagers were supporters of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There has been no eyewitness that the local people from Depayin town publicly came to that area by transportation or on foot on May 29 or 30. If so, where did the 5000 criminals who attacked the motorcade of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the villagers from Kyi come from? Some reliable information indicates that they might be the members from the Union Solidarity and Development Association [USDA—a government established organization ostensibly for civil development but used primarily as a political tool] and criminals collected and taken by the authorities from other parts of Burma. According to the statements of eyewitnesses, when the incident commenced, the first large group of attackers came from cars that closely followed the motorcade. The total number was over 1000. The remaining numbers were positioned clandestinely beside the road in the two designated killing fields. Both groups of attackers were holding iron spikes, iron bars, bamboo and wooden clubs and other sharp weapons. They appeared only after two monks halted the motorcade. Then, they inhumanely and brutally attacked the unarmed NLD members and supporters.
- In the event that clashes between two opposing groups with bare hands happened spontaneously, it might not have been atrocious and serious. It is evident that the NLD members and supporters, including the villagers from Kyi, held no weapons. By contrast, the 5000 people mentioned by the junta already held lethal weapons. The following factors indicate that it was not an event that happened spontaneously but a well-organized crime:
(a) Before the motorcade arrived, local authorities threatened people living in villages between Sai Pyin village and Depayin town not to welcome Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and not to appear if something happened.
(b) Out of the 5000 referred to by the junta, over 1000 criminals in cars at the rear of the motorcade first created a problem with the villagers from Kyi, and then started their premeditated attack at the first killing field.
(c) The remaining thousands of criminals waiting beside the road under cover of night joined the first attackers from the left side of the first killing field.
(d) Other criminals numbering more than 1000 were already positioned at the second killing field, on the way to Depayin town, about five minutes drive from the first killing field. They attacked the cars of NLD members and supporters that escaped from the first killing field.
- According to reliable information, villagers from the villages around the killing fields took care of the wounded victims. Then, the victims left those villages and went into hiding for fear of being arrested and executed by the junta. The junta arrested the wounded victims who did not escape from the killing fields and placed them in the prisons such as Shwe Bo, Kathar, Khamti and others. As such, the list of the injured persons issued by the junta is not complete. There have been no public hospitals in the whole country where the family members and relatives can meet wounded victims from the Depayin incident.
Function of the Ad Hoc Commission
The commission has a limited function, as it cannot visit the scene of crime, interview all relevant witnesses, local people and responsible authorities. However, it has interviewed four eyewitnesses. Out of the four, two were themselves beaten. Without partiality, the commission scrutinized the statements of these four witnesses. In addition, the commission also received statements of two other eyewitnesses who were present at the scene of crime, from reliable sources. The commission accepted the statements of those six eyewitnesses as major primary evidence. It also transcribed the radio interviews made by NLD leaders and MP-elects who personally met eyewitnesses, and by relatives who attempted to meet the victims. The commission has accepted their testimonies as secondary evidence.
Holding the perpetrators responsible and national reconciliation
Taking action on the Depayin massacre is not a question of politics but seeking justice for the victims and preventing repeat crimes in future. The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD members and other people detained by the junta should be welcome. Nevertheless, it should not be the final resolution in dealing with the Depayin massacre. There cannot be a trade-off.
The Depayin massacre has become a major concern not only for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD members but also for the whole society. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is a charismatic world-renowned leader. Unless effective legal action is taken against the perpetrators of a well-publicized crime against a Nobel Peace laureate, the perpetrators will enjoy impunity forever. In addition, they will dare to commit more serious crimes against innocent ordinary citizens repeatedly in the near future.
Transition from the rule of dictators to democracy in Burma will require proper and effective justice for the victims of human rights abuses. From 1962 to the present, successive military juntas have committed crimes against humanity several times. In spite of that, no effective action could be taken. The perpetrators have enjoyed impunity. In the event that they can enjoy impunity with regards to the Depayin massacre, serious human rights violations will certainly occur in Burma more than before.
A role for the international community
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has existed since 2002 and it will have jurisdiction to deal with the most serious cases committed after its creation. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court enshrines the definition of a “crime against humanity” as any act—including murder, extermination, enforced disappearance of persons, and others—committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack. The Depayin massacre falls within the scope of crimes against humanity. It may not be fair if the ICC denies the victims of the Depayin Massacre the right to lodge complaints, reasoning that it has jurisdiction only over the countries that have formally ratified the Rome Statute. The military junta in Burma will never ratify the Rome Statute. It uses “sovereignty of state” as a shield to cover its human rights violations.
The UN Security Council formed the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The scale of the Depayin massacre may not equal what happened in those two countries, however, it was also a serious crime committed by thousands of perpetrators. In the event that the UN Security Council keeps silent and permits the perpetrators to have impunity, more serious crimes threatening regional peace and stability may occur in Burma. In order to establish the truth and take effective legal actions against the perpetrators of the Depayin incident, the victims and witnesses themselves are required to be courageous enough. They must come before the public, make known the truth, and bring the perpetrators into justice. To this end, our Ad Hoc Commission on the Depayin Massacre is ready to provide all necessary assistance to the concerned victims and witnesses. We will also seek cooperation with individuals, human rights and democratic organizations, legal institutions and governments, from the international community as well as from inside Burma.
On 25 June 2003 the Burma Lawyers’ Council and the National Council of the Union of Burma set up the Ad Hoc Commission on the Depayin Massacre (Burma). This article consists of edited extracts from the ‘Explanatory statement on the Depayin Massacre’ that introduces its Preliminary report of the Ad Hoc Commission on the Depayin Massacre (Burma), dated 4 July 2003.