MYANMAR/BURMA: People of Myanmar deserve far more from UN than trivial and belated comments

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is writing to you with regards to your statement of 23 August 2007 concerning the consequences of the August 15 increase to fuel prices in Myanmar (Burma) and repeated protests in the former capital that are now reported to be spreading to other parts of the country.

The AHRC is surprised that it took your office over one week to release a statement on these dramatic developments in the tightly-controlled country. And while welcoming any movement from the international community on what is now happening in Myanmar, it is also nonetheless highly disappointed at the piecemeal and trivial contents of the short paragraph attributed to you, which show a lack of understanding of the real issues and immense problems faced by the people there.

First, you express concern that arrests have been carried out by “the authorities”. In fact, most of the protests are being blocked and persons taken away by gangs of thugs mobilised as proxies for the police and military. These are not “pro-government” groups as reported in many news items over the last few days and nor do they have any legal basis. They are an unofficial arm of the state that has been systematically organised through township and ward councils and the government’s mass body, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, for some years now, including for the purposes of the lethal attack on a convoy carrying the opposition party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters at Depayin in 2003. They have been used repeatedly throughout this year to break up silent prayer vigils and similar peaceful actions by concerned citizens, of which the AHRC and other organisations have also already repeatedly informed the relevant special procedures under the UN Human Rights Council.

Secondly, you encourage “all parties to avoid any provocative action”. In fact, this is an offensive and completely inappropriate remark. Was the unannounced doubling in charges of diesel fuel and quintupling of those for compressed natural gas–which you don’t even mention in the statement–not an enormous provocation of millions in Myanmar who for years have been struggling to survive day by day? And while your comment can be construed as a diplomatically-worded warning for the military not to use unnecessary force in dealing with the protestors, it also tantamount to implying that for their part, members of the general public who feel aggrieved by the price increases should not do anything to cause the authorities to take to the use of arms.

To this we must ask, if not protest then what should the people of Myanmar do? Would you have them wait patiently for the sort of “constructive dialogue towards national reconciliation” that you have your special envoy engaged in at present? In short, do you deny them the right to take to the streets and assert that they won’t be parties to their own impoverishment and degradation any longer? Are they not able to decide for themselves the about the dangers that they face–dangers that they know much better than you or I–and act accordingly?

Thirdly, the notion of “constructive dialogue” is anyhow spurious. Surprisingly, the United Nations continues to pretend that such a thing exists in dealing with the Government of Myanmar, perhaps for want of anything else. The current government there has used the pretext of constructive dialogue to hold power against the will of its people for almost two decades. For how much longer can the UN afford to go along with this version of discourse? Even the Association of South East Asian Nations, which once championed this concept in dealings with Myanmar, has quietly backed away from it in recent years. Furthermore, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, in June himself pointed out that the committee’s operations have come to a complete standstill in the country because, ”Despite repeated entreaties by the ICRC, the authorities have consistently refused to enter into a serious discussion…” He added that,

”The organization uses confidential and bilateral dialogue as its preferred means of achieving results. However, this presupposes that parties to a conflict are willing to enter into a serious discussion and take into account the ICRC’s recommendations. This has not been the case with the authorities of Myanmar and that is why the ICRC has decided to speak out publicly.” (Underline added)

The AHRC recalls the valuable role that the United Nations played and continues to play in dealing with the intense humanitarian and political crisis in Nepal, which helped to break the military’s stranglehold on the country and open the way for the many difficult steps that it is continuing to take towards a new future. It asks: why has the international community failed to offer the same sorts of strenuous effort towards breaking that of the army over Myanmar? Why has the country obtained so little serious attention and quality thinking from UN institutions? Why is it that after a remarkable week in which people in Burma have taken to the streets in the sincere hope of support and interest from abroad they have obtained only three sentences from the UN Secretary General, through a spokesperson?–a shockingly inadequate response that borders on an insult to people who are risking their lives and liberties to bring their country at last into the 21st century global community.

Accordingly, the Asian Human Rights Commission urges you to do much more than follow events closely and with concern and issue nicely-phrased observations. Please immediately convene a special meeting with your special envoy on Myanmar, the UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs, and concerned and informed persons from inside and outside the UN system to assess the current situation and propose specific responses and strategies. Please also consider how the question of Myanmar can again be brought before the Security Council, where it has already been in recent times, with more effect on this occasion. Without your firm resolve, the people of Myanmar will again find themselves forced to struggle alone, as they have on so many occasions in the past.

Yours sincerely

Basil Fernando
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

1. Mr. Gambari Ibrahim, UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs
2. Ms. Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
3. Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar
4. Mr. Homajoun Alizadeh, Regional Representative, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Document Type : Open Letter
Document ID : AHRC-OL-028-2007
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),
Campaigns : Burma Peoples Protests