Shocking child abuse case makes Suu Kyi look a fool

Photo: Burma Democratic Concern/CC BY 2.0

A high-profile child abuse case has exposed systematic failings in Myanmar’s Human Rights Commission – throwing a dark shadow over Suu Kyi’s claims to the world that her government is committed to protecting the vulnerable.

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Ma Tha Zin, 16, and Ma San Kay Khaing, 17 suffered five years of heartless physical and mental abuse at the hands of a wealthy family of tailors in Kyauktada Township in the commercial capital Yangon. They were used as maids, stabbed with knives and scissors and burnt with an iron by the family which kept them captive. Their treatment has caused an uproar which rightly extends to the highest offices of the land. But is Myanmar, again, failing to protect its people?

Police arrested five suspects, four of which are from the same prominent tailor family, including the shop owner and her children. All five face human trafficking charges. And despite the terrible allegations and obvious gross misconduct towards the girls, the abusers haven’t expressed their guilt. They lay the blame on the girls, “accusing them of disrespect while they were employed”.

Abuse reports ignored

Though the girls were rescued, many people are criticizing the Myanmar Human Rights Council for responding so late. It has come to light that they were tipped off earlier about the abuse that the two girls were facing. However, no one thought to look into it seriously. Human rights activists, politicians, and lawyers are now calling for the resignation of members of the commission for botching their first big chance to prove their worth.

Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader addressed the U.N. General Assembly last Wednesday for the first time, in her speech she ensured her “government’s faith in fundamental human rights.” But where was this faith for Ma Tha Zin, 16, and Ma San Kay Khaing? The Presidential Office of Htin Kyaw has been monitoring this case closely to find out if the claims of MNHRC’s alleged mishandling of this case are true, saying “it is studying the MNHRC’s measures in connection with this incident, and is also watching developments arising from this incident.”

As the highest authority in the land for addressing human rights abuses, their response is being closely monitored.

Buying their innocence?

Since the MNHRC finally accepted the case of the abused girls on September 15, it has pressured the families of the victims to seek monetary compensation, rather than bringing the abusers to justice. The deal brokered between the abusers and the victims’ families, settled on a payment of “4 million kyats (U.S. $3,150) to one girl and 1 million kyats (U.S. $790) to the other.” In return the abusers avoid punishment.

Members of the Human Rights Commission haven’t been able to comment formally on the settlement. Instead, the body has told media outlets that the victims requested the Commission’s help to get monetary compensation so this was the focus of their response. However, at this time of publication, this statement hasn’t been verified. Police have also declined to comment.

Many critics are saying that because they are not going to tried in a court of law that the MNHRC is allowing the abusers to buy their innocence. They are buying the silence of the families and impunity from the gross injustices they have committed. It also stinks that the abusers were only arrested once the public got wind of the case and demanded the authorities to take action. Since then lawmakers and politicians have become increasingly invested and are trying to discuss it at a national level in parliament.

The fierce backlash from the public led human rights activists to protest outside of the MNHRC’s offices last Tuesday. In a hastily-organised emergency press conference, a commission representative explained, “it was only trying to get compensation for the two girls during its mediation and that legal recourse against the shop owner and her children was still a possibility.”

A flood of criticism

Meanwhile, critics of the MNHRC’s actions include myriad politicians such as Lower House member Htay Win Aung who said that the commission “had failed to prevent the abuse of human rights and to protect the constitutional rights” of citizens.

Right now there is no certainty that the criminals at hand will face justice. But what should deserve swift action is the MNHRC’s handling of the case. They initially shrugged it off due to their ignorance of the facts, and even after being presented with undeniable evidence did not pursue criminal action. The MNHRC’s mishandling of one of the country’s first high-profile human rights cases under the new government attests to their incompetence and their failure to act as an objective arbitration commission. This is not the faith that Suu Kyi told the world about last week.

Ma Tha Zin and Ma San Kay Khaing deserve better.