Wikileaks Rangoon Cables Part I – Retribution vs. Development

A few cables relating to Burma have been released in the newest batch of Wikileaks*   One, in particular, was particularly interesting.  It was written in 2008 by Shari Villarosa, the outgoing chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Rangoon and is a summary of her thoughts on a range of issues.  I am going to address several of the points she raises in the next few posts.

In the cable, Ms. Villarosa suggests that the United States may want to provide security guarantees to senior ruling generals in return for them stepping down.  This concept dovetails with some of my argument regarding a Commission of Inquiry in this post.  A blanket security guarantee would go further, eliminating, rather than delaying the possibility of retribution for the large numbers of people who have been unjustly imprisoned, forcibly relocated, or killed by the regime. The notion of what to do with leaders who have committed gross human rights abuses has been widely debated and discussed by scholars and human rights practitioners.  The International Center for Transitional Justice (which disagrees with my position on a Commission of Inquiry) is one organization that exists solely to deal with this problem.  An interesting discussion on the issue can be found here.   In my mind, the ultimate question of whether retribution should be traded off in order to accomplish goals of democracy and development should be left to the Burmese people.  Of course, how we determine the views of the “Burmese people” is a more difficult question that I will deal with in a later post.

As my focus is primarily on development, the related issue for me is how much of the limited funds available for Burma-related projects should be put toward the documentation and reporting of human rights abuses and the efforts made toward lobbying the UN and other bodies for retribution.  The aid business is a zero sum game.  Every dollar that goes into documenting and reporting atrocities is one less dollar available for humanitarian or development efforts.**

Abuses by the regime have been well documented.  There have been reports on overall crimes against the Burmese people, on child soldiers in Burma, on the abuse of Karen women, on the abuse of Shan women, and more reports are generated regularly.  At the same time, lobbying groups in the US, the UK spend a healthy portion of their not-insubstantial budgets on retribution issues including advocating sanctions, boycotts, and commissions of inquiry.   I often wonder if all this money would be better spent on schools, hospitals, or refugee assistance programs.  On the one hand, victims of human rights abuses deserve to have their story told and the perpetrators brought to justice.  On the other, world leaders are now either well aware of the atrocities committed by the Burmese military or they are willfully ignorant.  Either way, I’m not convinced that one more report is going to have much impact.  A few dollars to a clinic on the border or two a teacher-training program in the delta could make a huge difference.  I’d be interested to hear the views of people on the ground, especially those who author these kinds of reports.  Do you think its money well spent?

*I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Wikileaks but now that the information out there, I think it is entirely reasonable to comment on its content.  Because some may be averse to viewing the Wikileaks page, I have not linked to it in the text of the post.  For those who do want to view it, the cable being discussed can be found here.

**Its actually not quite that simple.  I will be discussing aid distribution decisions in a later post.


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