Justice and the rule of law



COMMENTARY: NAREERAT WIRIYAPONG

Published: 6/02/2017 at 04:30 AM
Newspaper section: Asia focus

Two recent incidents in Southeast Asia have caught the attention of international human rights activists. Indeed, they should concern anyone who cares about the rule of law.

The first was the assassination of a prominent Muslim lawyer who advised Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, at the Yangon airport. Ko Ni was shot in the head at close range by a lone gunman while holding his young grandson outside the gate of the airport, where security should be tight normally.

The 63-year-old constitutional law specialist had been advising the NLD on amending the army-drafted constitution that gives the military undue power in the government that was democratically elected in 2015. Ko Ni was also an advocate for the Muslim minority in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country, a position that earned him the enmity of ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks and their allies.

Police have arrested the gunman and alleged mastermind of the killing. Their motive was not known but government has called it an effort to destabilise the country.

The killing comes at a time of heightened tensions in Myanmar. The United Nations says about 65,000 Muslims have fled Rakhine state to Bangladesh since the start of a military crackdown following attacks that killed nine Myanmar border police on Oct 9. The crackdown is alleged to have resulted in scores of deaths, rapes and other abuses, and torching of entire villages.

Amnesty International said the death of Ko Ni marked "the loss of an important voice in the fight for human rights in Myanmar". Human rights advocates have called for an independent investigation into the killing.

In the Philippines, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has stepped up its condemnation of unlawful killings by police linked to President Rodrigo Duterte's abusive "war on drugs". It wants the United Nations to lead an independent international investigation into the bloody campaign that has killed some 7,000 Filipinos since Mr Duterte took office last July. HRW suggests police officers are now exploiting the "drug war" for corrupt personal gain.

The abduction and murder of a South Korean businessman by rogue Filipino police officers in October has given ammunition to Mr Duterte's critics and pushed him into an embarrassing diplomatic rift with the Seoul government.

Jee Ick-joo was allegedly killed by officers at the headquarters of the Philippine National Police in Manila. The Philippine Senate last week conveniently suspended its inquiry into Jee's death, saying it needed to refocus its efforts on observing the new war on corruption. Mr Duterte said he had apologised and assured Jee's widow that justice would be "swiftly served". Chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo was sent to Seoul to apologise to the South Korean government.

Mr Duterte won election last year largely on the strength of public enthusiasm for his tough talk on curbing curb crime and drugs, even if it meant killing tens of thousands of people. He remains popular with voters but the international community is alarmed, especially by the thousands of deaths attributed to vigilantes.

Amnesty International said its investigations found that the police paid vigilantes 10,000 pesos (US$200) for each drug-related killing they carried out. It has urged the Duterte government to adopt an approach that respects human rights in its fight against drugs and crime.

Instead of looking seriously into the Jee case as well as the legitimacy of his anti-drug campaign, Mr Duterte ordered the police to suspend their anti-drugs operations in the wake of the Korean businessman's killing. Then on Wednesday he ordered the military to join the campaign instead, describing the police force as "corrupt to the core" and vowing to cleanse it. He has vowed to continue his offensive until the end of his term in 2022.

Given that the Philippines holds the chair of Asean this year, it should be more aware of the importance of the rule of law, especially in cases where international relations could be jeopardised. And while non-interference in others' internal affairs has long been a core principle of Asean, expressing dismay at the excesses of the Duterte regime would not be out of line.

In Myanmar, let's hope that the investigation into the murder of Ko Ni leads to justice. The country has been making encouraging progress in its transition from decades of military rule to civilian government, and dealing transparently with the Ko Ni case will be good for Myanmar and the image of Asean as whole.