BURMA: Interview with Mr. Basil Fernando on torture of the poor and related issues 

Q: What was your purpose in writing the book ‘Torture of the Poor?’ Why do we talk about torture and poverty?
A: Because in the real world, particularly in less developed countries, we can see that poverty and the torture are linked.

Q: How are they linked?
A: First of all, the majority of people who are tortured are from poorer sections of society. That is only one aspect. The other aspect is that in order to have poverty, you must have torture.

Q: How is poverty created?
A: Poverty is not created by a lack of means or a lack of resources. It is created by various arrangements which suppress people. Without suppression, you cannot have poverty, because freedom and poverty cannot work together. When there is freedom, you will have people who are eager to talk about their problems, who talk to others about their problems, who organize themselves to do something about their problems and their poverty. So to have poverty, you must break social linkages. You must break the inner structures that bring human beings to work together. If human beings could get together and work together, poverty would not exist because together, they would find a way out of their poverty.

In order to have poverty then, you must break these linkages. The state develops various mechanisms to break these linkages. These mechanisms are usually what we call security apparatuses. It is through these various apparatuses that natural linkages among the people are broken. I am talking about our country: Sri Lanka. I am not generalizing to the whole world. When you look at Sri Lanka you will find that these linkages are broken by the intervention of security apparatuses which create a state of violence in a social situation. All the time, violence is being created, so people are constantly preoccupied with this violence. They get wounded, they get separated, they get bitter, and they get unhappy. All those things prevent them from coming together, from understanding each other. They are prevented from seeing why a problem exists and how to get over that. This is how poverty is created by the internal social organization.

Within the social organization, in the creation of violence, torture is a major instrument. Torture is not just about somebody being beaten up one day; neither is it an accident. It is a very organized way of thinking, a part of the thinking process, a part of the social organization. Money is spent on it to keep it going.

We can get over poverty by creating spaces for people to come together, to talk to each other peacefully, but we cannot create such spaces without fighting against torture. That is why torture comes first. Of course, the poverty is the problem. I’ll give you an analogy; when my hand does not work, the cause may be some problem in the nerve system. But I can only see the problem in my hand. However, a doctor who looks at it may say that the problem is my nerve system. Then I have to threaten the nerve system in order to cure the problem with my hand. Similarly, if you want to address poverty, you have to address torture and the poverty problem will also go away. When there is no one to intimidate them, there can be open discussions among the people which will open their minds and create larger discourses. A conversation among the poor can be created in this way. It is because torture is constantly disturbing this process of people coming together that there is no solution to poverty. For example, in order for money lenders who give money to people as loans with high interest rates – so that they can gain a large percentage of what the people produce – they use the police to harass and intimidate people.

It is in order to control and suppress people that torture is used. The same principle is used when people distribute essential food items: they increase the prices. How can such exploitation go on without using violence? If the people protest against that and take some bread because they are hungry, a policeman will say, “oh there is a law, you broke the law,” and they will beat up the man. So they keep unfair pricing structures erected for their own benefit. If you want to buy other people’s land cheaply, but they won’t allow you to do so, what do you do? You create an unjust law and get the police to enforce that unjust law. This is why torture is such an important component of keeping the people down.

When people are kept down they also become poor. If the people are talking with each other and moving and doing things, there will not be poverty. So in fighting against poverty, fighting against torture comes first. Because of that fight, space would be created for the people to move about and to talk and eventually cure poverty.

Dealing with poverty is not about throwing something from the top so that the poor can pick it up. People are never allowed to pick that up. Before the poor people, other people pick up these things. No matter how much you try to change things, in between, there are lots of people who pick up whatever is available. They do not wait until those who are most needy can pick up these things. That is the problem. That is why poverty and unfair competition is linked.

That is why we started fight against torture, because it is a very obvious thing, a very natural thing. If we don’t study that, then we cannot help ourselves and we cannot help the people. When we see the problem, we recognize the problem and we write about it and help to fight torture.

Q: If human rights violations have been done by the government, what can an ordinary person do to help the poor to come out of their poverty?
All the help we can do for anybody is to help her or him to help themselves. It’s the poor who have to overcome poverty. Nobody else can come from the outside and take away their poverty. If we are to help, then we must help to bring them together. To bring them together, you must create spaces for them to be free, for them to talk to each other, to exchange their ideas, to move and to work together. If a person’s idea of helping the poor is to give them something, it won’t help. It’s charity. Charity is not going solve the poverty problem. It’s much bigger than that. By creating the space for people to come, to discuss, you will become involved in dealing with poverty.

Q: Many people from Burma became victims of trafficking. Trafficking is related to poverty issues. Which issues should be solved first the poverty issue or trafficking?
A: This is how it works. People who don’t have food to eat try to go out and find food. And there are people who exploit them, who make all kinds of promises, and then they take them away. And in the process, they let them be used. Sometimes, they use very cheap labor, and if they cannot do that, then they use violence. They keep them in hidden places. They don’t allow them to return to their houses. They get them to do things that they don’t want to do. That is the process of trafficking. A trafficker is the person who makes promises, then hands them over to a place to exploit them.

Q: How do you fight against that?
A: If you try to find the traffickers, you can kill them, but tomorrow there will be another person. If you try to fight them and put them in the jail, still there will be another person. The question is that you must be willing to address a number of related questions. You must expose the structure, and then create it so that trafficking cannot take place in secret. So you must document this process. You must get people into a social debate. You must try to find a solution where people can find jobs without traffickers. For example, if there is a proper government service that provides a way for people to find jobs, then they won’t go to the traffickers. They will go to that good agency.

Q: The trafficker is involved because people are taken for illegal businesses, such as prostitution. How can we prevent that without creating alternative jobs?
A: By creating jobs which are normal. If people can find a good job and they can find enough money to eat, they can get the necessary training so that they can get jobs. If people are carefully helped in finding jobs, they will not go to traffickers. If they can get accurate information about a job easily, then they will not go to traffickers. There needs to be a proper information service where they can learn about such job opportunities. That way, human rights groups can create conditions where it is virtually impossible for traffickers to exploit the powerlessness of the people.

We can punish these people. But punishment is not enough. If you punish one person, then they will bribe the police, and they will both profit. You need to create an alternative system. The trafficking process can be made difficult for traffickers by creating a social debate, by providing a great deal of information and reaching out to the poor.

Above all, this involves fighting the corruption which involves the police. Without a negligent, corrupt police force, there will be no trafficking. If there is an efficient, trustworthy police service, trafficking can be stopped. It is because there is bad policing, because the police take bribes that trafficking happens. So fighting against bad policing is one of the major ways to avoid trafficking. It should be a comprehensive approach. Many of us need to work on this. It should not be left only to a few people who try to help these poor people. That would be impossible.

Q: According to your experience, what is the most important human rights violation that needs to be corrected first?
A: There is nothing that should be corrected first, per se. There are some major things that we have to address. One major problem that we have to address is the question of policing. Poverty and bad policing are linked. Poverty and corruption is linked. Corruption cannot happen without a corrupt police force. The major issue we have to deal with is to try and understand why the police is like this, who is supporting them and what the system is like behind these people. If you want to bring democracy from the bottom up, the way to do so is to deal with about bad policing. One major problem about Asia is that in poorer countries, bad policing seriously affects human rights. Of course, bad policing is also linked with other thing. For instance, it’s linked with judges, with bad politicians; many things work together. But the most important thing is to create a space for the people to participate. When people begin to participate, they will sort it out themselves. We should always fight against torture. Its a very, very important part of the work on human rights in any of our countries. It is a central issue.

Q: As the Director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, what did you think of the 2010 election in Burma?
A: In an election, we make our statements. The main thing is to use this situation to talk about the larger problems of Burma. We can start with, what is an election? An election is the time we have to try to solve people’s problems. So during that election we need to talk about all the restrictions which are set up against people. How can you have an election when you keep the oppositions to the ruling government or party in prison? Not only the leader, but every member of the party is in prison. An election can only happen only in a fair, just context. Without a fair context, how can there be any proper discussions on the issues?

All the repression that is inside Burma makes it impossible to have a free, fair election. That must be exposed. We should show why there will not be a fair election. If we show why there will not be a fair election, it will generate a discussion. Such discussion is deeply necessary.

(Mr. Basil Fernando is a Policy and Programme Development Director in Asian Human Rights Commission)

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-096-2010
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),
Issues : Poverty & adequate standard of living,