Enough Talk on Burma

The tit-for-tat between the United Nations and Burma resumed this week, leading human rights groups to hope that fiery rhetoric could somehow prompt real action.

A new UN report presented Tuesday at a meeting of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council in Geneva said that at least 31 people were killed last September when Burma’s military regime used guns to stifle pro-democracy protests. The junta had previously admitted to only 10 deaths.

Burma quickly rejected the findings of Special Rapporteur Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, who said he was not granted the freedom to investigate fully and noted suspicious activity that suggested the actual death toll was much higher.

“Exercising its sovereign right to handle a violent situation should not be construed as a violation of human rights,” Wunna Maung Lwin, the regime’s UN ambassador in Geneva, told the council.

”We have been able to restore peace and stability and the situation is back to normal all over the country,” he said.

US President George W. Bush on Tuesday called for more sanctions against Burma, a day after First Lady Laura Bush called on the regime’s neighbors to “use their influence to help bring about a democratic transition.” On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council will vote on a

European Union resolution that calls for Pinheiro to return to Burma by March to investigate further.

Does any of this matter to people on the ground? Human rights advocates certainly welcome the tough talk, but they have grown skeptical of

what can be accomplished by harsh words and resolutions against a military regime that has ruled at gunpoint for 45 years.

“We are urging the UN not to leave Burma on the same footing forever,” said Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Hong Kong. “Small negotiations here and there won’t help. They need to intervene in a more vigorous way so that civilians feel free to participate in society.”

Some countries, like the US, Australia, the EU and Japan have kept up the pressure on Burma, but others, like China, Russia and India have more or less accommodated the regime and continued to do business with the generals. The encouraging response to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) among nations that either want to buy gas from Burma or sell weapons has complicated international efforts to pressure the junta into easing its grasp.

“All the disjointed responses from the international community play right into the hands of the SPDC,” said David Mathieson, a consultant on Burma for Human Rights Watch. “The danger is – and the SPDC knows it – that the international community will set the bar so low that when the regime throws a few tidbits their way people will actually start cheering.”

A new report on Burma by the AHRC released this week chastised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his initial response to the crisis in late September. The group says that boilerplate calls for Burma to return to democracy reflect a fundamental lack of understanding about the extent to which democratic institutions have been destroyed. The report calls for a new dialogue that focuses on building institutions that will have an impact on the daily lives of Burmese citizens.

“One of the reasons that neither the Secretary General nor High Commissioner – or any of the special procedures – has anything much to say or do about what has happened in Myanmar in recent weeks is that none of them actually know anything much about the country,” says the report, “Burma, political psychosis and legal dementia.”

“The sad fact is that despite the presence of a Special Rapporteur under the Human Rights Council, a Special Envoy of the Secretary General and in-country offices of a range of United Nations agencies, policymakers in the international system are uninformed about how the state operates, how its people deal with it and how to approach it effectively for change,” the report adds. “Thus, they are unable to do anything because they don’t know anything.”

Indeed, as the report shows, the massive street protests at the end of September and the government’s brutal response were nothing unusual for this nation of 55 million. It simply presented to the world on a massive scale the kind of lawlessness that takes place on a local level everyday.

Without access to the courts or an effective rule of law, Burma’s people have few choices. With no oversight or check on its power, the junta has no qualms about killing people who oppose its rule, as it demonstrated so blatantly a few months ago.

In Burma, the 1974 constitution merged the judicial and legislative branches of government, so that top judges were chosen from members of parliament. They in turn appointed judges who would uphold the system, and all those who made legal decisions were ultimately held accountable to then-strongman General Ne Win, who ushered in military rule back in 1962.

“The government in Burma routinely iterates its intentions to build a modern and developed state, but without functioning courts where persons with legitimate grievances can bring complaints, this is an absurd notion,” the AHRC report says.

The report cites dozens of examples of local injustice, mostly through the use of several draconian laws: Articles 124A, 211, 504 and 505B. The first, deals with any words or signs opposing the junta; the second, with false accusations; the third, with provoking someone “to break public peace” and the fourth, with publishing anything that disrupts “public tranquility.”

These laws and others have been used to incarcerate people who complain about corruption and other illegal acts by local authorities, discuss the rights of workers or possess a DVD that shows the extravagant wedding of the daughter of junta leader Senior General Than Shwe. Even hanging a t-shirt of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a classroom could get someone three years in prison, as teacher U Aung Pe found out.

The report also documents many cases where the police outright beat people to death for such offenses as urinating in public, eloping and even sitting next to a rowdy crowd. The murders were all promptly covered up, and families of the victims seldom receive justice.

Given this state of chaos – in which the authorities break the law routinely to maintain control – the AHRC makes several recommendations for the UN to tackle the institutional troubles with Burma. The report calls for an end to the debate over sanctions and the beginning of a serious discussion about more tangible efforts to help the Burmese.

These include: 1) Giving the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all prisons, police stations and places of detention; 2) doubling humanitarian efforts with guarantees from the junta of non-interference; and 3) establishing a special UN monitoring agency that has a clear mandate for active work on the ground.

“Just sending an envoy now and then is in no way sufficient,” the report says. “A clear vision for active work on the ground is vital if outside efforts are to be worth anything; the persistent lack of any such plan is one of the reasons that so many people have wasted time falling back into the to-and-fro about sanctions.”

A revolution always remains a possibility in a state where most people hate the soldiers who lord over them. Until that happens, however, the UN might want to consider a solution similar to the one in Nepal, where a UN Human Rights office was recently established with vigorous monitoring and public censure of violations.

“We must understand that this will be a very slow, frustrating and difficult process,” Mathieson said. “The role of the international community is to put pressure on the SPDC to begin a dialogue with its own people. And it can do that through cutting off sales of arms and weaponry, which are the tools of oppression.”

Even small steps to establish the rule of law in a country governed by thugs with guns could help restore hope to a beleaguered nation. In the long run, this is also in the best interests of the junta, which is in a race against time before Burma’s hungry, poor and oppressed people again take to the streets.

“Burma’s government is today more than ever at war on all fronts,” says the AHRC report. “But it is a war that it cannot win, because it is a war that it cannot end. Its survival depends upon forever treating its own people as its enemies. Their survival depends upon the opposite.”