The last gambit in Myanmar

The last gambit in Myanmar

The junta is lobbying for a bill that grants former presidents immunity from prose-cution for past crimes.

Myanmar President U Thein Sein has promised a smooth transition of power to Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), but the junta is quietly lobbying with the NLD to clear a bill that protects former presidents from prosecution for crimes committed when in office.

The bill surfaced during the final parliament session of the present government, which began just after the NLD’s sweeping victory in the November 10 national elections. The session will continue until end of January.

The Former Presidents Security Bill is seen by analysts as the last attempt by Myanmar’s long-ruling military junta to ensure that their leaders are not prosecuted for past criminal offences.

It grants immunity to former heads of state “from any prosecution for actions during his term.” Outlined in article 10 of the bill, this provision is meant to protect former presidents from domestic prosecution for even the most serious crimes committed while in office, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“This is a brazen attempt to shoehorn immunity from prosecution into the president’s retirement package,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at US-based Human Rights Watch was quoted by Mizzima News as saying.

“The immunity provision should be stripped from the proposed law so that Thein Sein and future presidents remain accountable for any crimes they commit.”

The draft law consists of 14 clauses that outline the government’s commitment to support retired presidents, such as lifetime funding for a bodyguard and other personal security measures.

In any case, under the 2008 Constitution that currently governs Myanmar, the military would retain three crucial ministries (Home, Defence and Border Affairs) and one-fourth of the seats in both houses of parliament.

That effectively makes it impossible for anyone to carry through any constitutional amendment, including a controversial clause that denies anyone related to a foreigner the right to contest for the president’s office, without support from the military.

This clause denies Aung Sang Suu Kyi, married to a now-dead British professor Michael Aris, a go at the presidency despite her huge popularity provided by the NLD’s landslide victory in the polls.

Suu Kyi has expressed her angst, even saying that she will effectively run the government and not the president.

Former junta strongman Than Shwe and current army chief Senior General Ming Aung Hlaing have both welcomed the poll results, indicating that the military will honour it.

Shwe, however, described Suu Kyi as the “future leader of Myanmar,” while she cle-arly wants to lead the country right away.

Safety package

“Despite NLD’s landslide victory, the military’s control in the power structure is not going to change right away,” says Myanmar watcher Bertil Lintner.

And though there is no real chance of the powerful Tatmadaw (army) overturning the poll verdict, as it did in 1990, it is clear that the military is keen on a safety package for all those who have led the junta in the past.

“That looks like the deal for a smooth handover of power,” says an NLD leader, who was not willing to be quoted. “The army will try extracting its pound of flesh.”

Immunity for Myanmar’s past military governments is already present in Article 445 of the 2008 constitution, which prohibits prosecution of officials of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) (1988-1997) and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) (1997-2011).

Myanmar military personnel also enjoy effective immunity as the commander in chief serves as the final arbi-ter in matters of military jurisdiction.

But domestic immunity from prosecution may not spare past Myanmar leaders from prosecution for international crimes before international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), said Robertson.

Though Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, war crimes and crimes against humanity could still be tried by the court with approval from the United Nations Security Council.

“Instead of providing another protective blanket for the already well-shielded officials of past military governments, the parliament should act to ensure that all Myanmarese are equal under the law,” Robertson added. That, in Myanmar, is easier said than done, at least for now.

(The writer is a veteran journalist and author)