By Maaike Matelski –
On 8 December 2022, Nickey Diamond visited the VU for two lectures. Nickey is an activist from Myanmar who recently started a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Konstanz, where he is the first fellow in the “Students at Risk” Hilde-Domin programme of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). In the course Conflict and Peacebuilding, part of the VU minor in Peace and Conflict Studies, Nickey gave a guest lecture on anti-Muslim hate speech in Myanmar, the topic of his PhD thesis. Later that day, he spoke on post-coup resistance strategies in Myanmar as part of the VU’s Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS). He vividly described the ongoing struggle of various resistance groups in Myanmar against the military which had staged a coup on 1 February 2021. He also described his experiences having to flee several times to avoid persecution as a human rights activist, eventually relocating to Germany with his family, as well as his continued activism and the survivor guilt experienced by many exiled activists.
Before starting his PhD, Nickey worked as a Myanmar specialist with the human rights organisation Fortify Rights, with which he is still affiliated. On 20 January 2023, Fortify Rights filed a criminal complaint with the Federal Public Prosecutor in Germany against senior Myanmar military generals and others. Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, states can prosecute individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity regardless of the territory where these occurred or the nationality of the perpetrators or victims. Though not frequently invoked, it has been used in a few prominent cases such as the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s, and more recently for human rights violations committed in Syria and elsewhere. Nickey Diamond is one of the 16 individual complainants who brought this case to the German Prosecutor. The case is based on more than 1000 interviews with survivors and witnesses, and backed by several civil society organisations from Myanmar as well as former and current UN rapporteurs and diplomats, including Laetitia van den Assum, former Dutch Ambassador to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar in the 1990s.
What is remarkable about this particular complaint is that it brings together survivors of the genocide against Rohingya in 2016-2017 and victims of post-coup atrocities since 2021. The complainants represent over seven ethnic groups in Myanmar, including Rohingya and other minorities that have historically been targeted by the military, such as the Chin and Karen. Earlier attempts at international prosecution, such as the cases currently before the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, have been restricted to violence committed against the Rohingya. This is mostly due to limited legal mandate. Within universal jurisdiction, there are no such restrictions. By bringing together crimes that occurred against the Rohingya and against other ethnic groups, the patterns of violence committed by the Myanmar military are clearly exposed. The current head of the military, which has been seeking territorial control since the 2021 coup, was also responsible for the violence committed against the Rohingya in earlier years. This violence caused many casualties and a high number of refugees, primarily in Bangladesh. Since the coup and the violence that followed, the number of Myanmar refugees in Thailand and other countries, as well as those internally displaced, has grown exponentially. Meanwhile, the large number of victims from various ethnic groups in Myanmar creates the risk of overlapping documentation initiatives, while the limited international attention can lead to feelings of ‘competitive victimhood’ between different groups.
1 February 2023 marks the second year commemoration of the military coup. Yet after an initial focus on visible popular protest, the international community has been largely silent on the crimes that continue to take place in Myanmar. The case filed by Fortify Rights in Germany is therefore of particular significance, both for victim-survivors from Myanmar and for the international community to play an active role in ensuring criminal accountability. Nickey was initially involved in preparing the case with Rohingya genocide survivors, and decided to become a complainant when he personally suffered and witnessed several human rights violations after the 2021 coup. He expects more victims may join the case later, and hopes it will have a deterrent effect by showing the military leaders that they cannot continue to commit crimes with impunity.
For further information, see the press release issued by Fortify Rights.
Maaike Matelski is assistant professor in Anthropology at the VU and coordinator of the course Conflict and Peacebuilding: Local and Global Perspectives. Her book ‘Contested Civil Society in Myanmar’ will be published later this year. She recently co-authored an article on human rights documentation initiatives by civil society in Myanmar (Matelski et al. 2022).