Statements to the UN Commission on Human Rights regarding food insecurity in Burma

Statements to the UN Commission on Human Rights regarding food insecurity in Burma

Asian Legal Resource Centre

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) submitted these statements on food security in Burma (Myanmar) to the 59th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, held in Geneva during March and April 2003. It submitted the statements under agenda item 10: Economic, social and cultural rights. It also submitted a written statement on internally displaced persons in Burma under agenda item 14( c): Specific groups and individuals: Mass exoduses and displaced persons. [1] Previous years’ statements on food scarcity in Burma may also be found on the ALRC website (http:// www. alrc. net).

Written statement: Food scarcity in Myanmar [2]

1. The right to food of people in the Union of Myanmar continues to be denied by the military government in that country. During the last year the Asian Legal Resource Centre has increasingly received credible and disturbing reports of serious food shortages throughout Myanmar, both directly and indirectly linked to government practices implemented to ensure perpetuation of its undemocratic rule.

2. The Asian Legal Resource Centre has brought these concerns before the Commission over a number of years (most recently at its fifty-eighth session, E/ CN. 4/ 2002/ NGO/ 66), subsequent to the October 1999 findings of the People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma. The People’s Tribunal had recommended to the Government of Myanmar that it “address widespread food scarcity throughout the country by giving highest priority to food security as a basic human right”, in keeping with its commitments under article 25( 1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Regrettably, the Government has demonstrated unwillingness to alter its policies and practices exacerbating conditions of food insecurity.

3. During the past year the Asian Legal Resource Centre has drawn international attention to the case of Dr Salai Tun Than, as it speaks to both the ongoing agricultural and food crisis in Myanmar, and also to the indivisibility of all rights, be they economic and social or civil and political. At the end of 2001, Dr Salai Tun Than was arrested for a one-man protest against the military regime in front of the Yangon Town Hall. In February he was sentenced to seven years in jail for his moment of resistance. He is now seventy-five years old.

4. Dr Salai Tun Than is no political activist. He is an agricultural scientist with an impeccable record of service to the state and people of Myanmar. He devoted his life to the rural development of his country, serving within state institutions for around forty years, and receiving government awards acknowledging his work. In 1993, after his retirement from civil service, Dr Salai Tun Than established a non-governmental organization for agricultural development in the remote hilly regions of Myanmar. Although its work was highly successful and it attracted the support of international agencies, the organization was not recognized by the government. Instead, its activities were subject to constant interference and its orchards reportedly destroyed by military units engaged in counter-insurgency operations. Dr Salai Tun Than was himself prohibited from personally conducting training programmes. Unable to bear the repression any longer, he was driven to his final solo protest, for which he now sits in Insein Prison. [3]

5. That Dr Salai Tun Than has been sentenced to seven years in prison for what amounts to a protest against his inability to work independently as an agricultural scientist in Myanmar reinforces the validity of the Asian Legal Resource Centre’s earlier statements on food security there. His detention exposes the military regime’s rhetorical pretensions towards economic and social development as fraudulent. Dr Salai Tun Than spent his life working under the state for the social and economic betterment of the people of Myanmar, yet when he attempted to operate semi-autonomously in regions where his expertise was sorely needed, he became an enemy. Specious statistical indicators of agricultural expansion and economic progress are all made a mockery by the seven-year sentence handed down to this aging agricultural scientist. Dr Salai Tun Than is not the real victim in this case, for he knew well the consequences of his actions before the town hall. Rather, those who now suffer the most are the people with whom he worked and who benefited from his practical commitment to the right to food.

6. Within the past year, other brief protests have been launched before Yangon Town Hall, each inevitably ending with arrests and detention. Most recently, two Buddhist nuns were detained in January 2003 for shouting that, “A fall in prices is the people’s cause!” The nuns’ demand, for which they will now suffer the
same consequences as Dr Salai Tun Than, stems from the rapid escalation of basic commodity prices across the whole of Myanmar during 2002. Throughout the country, prices have at least doubled over the past year and in many areas more than tripled. Conditions are further expected to deteriorate during the coming year.

7. While the causes for ongoing food insecurity may be partly attributed to poor weather conditions, the Government of Myanmar must bear primary responsibility. The Asian Legal Resource Centre has continued to receive reports of the manifold ways in which it violates the right to food through denial of the right to work, pernicious taxation, confiscation of land and repeated demands for unpaid civilian labour. It prevents or inhibits people from working freely to achieve their food security. Farmers are not permitted to choose when, where and how to cultivate. In areas of armed conflict they are subject to unstable life-threatening conditions that prevent them from using their labour, land and natural resources to earn a living. In other parts of the country, farmers are the victims of policies that place their own wellbeing after the interests of the state. Regardless of economic circumstances, civilian communities are obliged to satisfy demands for goods and services from the military. Meanwhile, the government goes so far as to issue blanket denials of floods and natural disasters and deny responsibility for rising prices, claiming that such reports are fabrications spread by greedy rice merchants to drive up the market value of their product.

8. Paddy farmers, the largest occupational sector of the country, are subject to a compulsory paddy-purchase programme enforced by government agencies nationwide. The quota is based upon the land-holdings of each farmer and without regard to actual production. The implicit tax on paddy— arising when the government buys rice at lower than the market rate— has grown from around 10 per cent in the early 1990s to around 80 per cent during the past year. This rate is still escalating, as in January 2003 farmers around the capital are understood to have been ordered to sell paddy at 350 kyat per basket, when they could receive 1500 kyat for the same amount on the open market. Credible reports from across the country indicate that farmers are facing increasing hardship in meeting the government’s demands, but fear arrest if they fail to meet the quota. Whereas the military has been involved in collection of quota paddy in outlying areas for many years, in an apparently unprecedented move the commander of the central Yangon Division has now ordered that platoons of troops accompany government buyers to ensure that the paddy quota be met there also.

9. The recent food shortages have led to an upsurge of social unrest and crime. Reliable reports from across the country, throughout both urban and rural areas, indicate that groups of citizens have attacked and looted warehouses where rice is kept for export. In other cases, starving villagers have reportedly held up passenger buses travelling between urban areas, demanding not cash but food from those on board, and growing numbers of people coming to beg in towns and cities have been arrested in special police operations to suppress rising social discontent. A wave of food-related violence has also gripped the major cities
during the past few months, as people in many areas are reported to be surviving on meagre quantities of rice soup.

10. The Myanmar armed forces continue to be directly responsible for the most severe violations of the right to food. Counter-insurgency operations— especially in remote western and eastern regions— randomly destroy food stocks and crops, relocate civilian communities, and expropriate cash and materials. In some areas military operations directly target rural food supplies and crops without distinction, displace people from villages, scatter them into hills and jungles or force them into relocation sites. Widespread dislocation is resulting in serious and long-term structural food scarcity, not mere seasonal hunger due to occasional military incursions. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar raised these concerns in his oral submission to the fifty-eighth session of the Commission, noting that “the bulk of those allegations appear to be credible indeed, in the face of which I cannot be silent”. The Special Rapporteur on the right to food has also acknowledged reports of food scarcity in Myanmar due to military operations (E/ CN. 4/ 2002/ 58, para. 106).

11.The border regions of western Myanmar are among those that have been worst effected. There, the World Food Programme (WFP) has in recent years intervened to feed over 620,000 people belonging to Muslim communities forcibly repatriated to Myanmar from Bangladesh, with the complicity of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, since the mid-1990s. According to recent WFP documents, over half of the population in that region “is assessed to be food insecure” (WFP/ EB. 1/ 2002/ 8/ 6). This statement corresponds with data gathered by M?ecins sans Fronti?es, published in March 2002, that 58 per cent of refugee children still residing in Bangladesh suffer chronic malnutrition.

12.The WFP rationalizes its involvement in northern Rakhine State due to “continued household food insecurity, pressing needs in basic services and modest government commitment”. While the Asian Legal Resource Centre appreciates the WFP’s commitment to food security and its recognition of the food crisis in Myanmar, it cannot help but question the WFP’s understanding of government policies as “well formulated, but… inadequately translated into action”. In fact, it is ridiculous to think and talk in such terms when the food insecurity gripping Myanmar is a direct consequence of the militarist policies and actions of the
government there.

13.To talk of partnership with an authoritarian government to address fundamental economic rights first, democratization later is patently absurd. Starvation occurs in countries subject to the whims of dictators, not in relatively free and democratic societies. In the latter, with the advent of a natural disaster or other social
crisis the government is obliged to respond and alleviate the needs of its people. In the former, as in Myanmar today, the government is instead obliged to conceal its failures and use any means available to perpetuate its rule. In Myanmar it is no more possible to talk of protecting economic, social and cultural rights than it
is civil and political rights: neither are guaranteed. The right to food, then, is inextricably linked to the advancement of civil and political rights in Myanmar, as it is everywhere.

14. In light of the above, the Asian Legal Resource Centre remains convinced that the Government of Myanmar has failed to fulfill its obligations under international law. Above all other causes, it alone must be held responsible for the pervasive food insecurity that continues to grip the country. Accordingly, the Asian Legal Resource Centre again urgently calls on the Commission, and in particular the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and the right to food, to

a. Conduct an investigation into the ongoing, man-made food crisis in Myanmar, through existing mandates and mechanisms or through the establishment of a special mechanism.

b. Communicate with the WFP and other UN agencies already actively engaged in addressing food security in Myanmar to recognize and respond to the root causes of the crisis there.

c. Demand the immediate release of Dr Salai Tun Than and other prisoners of conscience who have spoken out against the Government of Myanmar’s manifest denial of the right to food.

d. Recognize that as all rights are indivisible, economic and social rights will not be assured in Myanmar until there are guarantees of basic civil and political rights there, and work through all available mechanisms towards that goal.

Oral statement: Myanmar— Thousands of people are displaced and starving [4]

What is the connection between white elephants and economic development? This March, a prominent Myanmar historian, Dr Than Tun, said that there isn’t any. The Government of Myanmar has now banned him from publishing articles in local magazines.

Dr Than Tun made his observation after the Government of Myanmar captured a number of white elephants, which are considered sacred. State media reported that Myanmar would prosper due to these animals. Dr Than Tun pointed out that this is nonsense. That the government responded so negatively to his common sense speaks to the indivisibility of rights and their ongoing collective violation in Myanmar, which the Asian Legal Resource Centre has again and again drawn to the Commission’s attention in its statements on economic, social and cultural rights.

Since presenting the 1999 findings of the People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma (E/ CN. 4/ 2000/ NGO/ 61), the Centre has repeatedly demonstrated that the military government is not genuine in its stated aspiration to ensure the food security of people in Myanmar (E/ CN. 4/ 2003/ NGO/ 84). A
government that sanctions a citizen who dares suggest that white elephants have no effect on economic progress cannot be expected also to take the right to food seriously. But the right to food in Myanmar is denied by more than mere neglect; it is a matter of principle. In every sense the state in Myanmar rests on the preeminence of the armed forces. As noted by the People’s Tribunal in 1999, “Policies [there are] designed at the highest levels to fulfil military needs first without regard to civilian well-being.”

It is in the remote parts of Myanmar that the worst abuses of the right to food continue. Within recent weeks, the Asian Legal Resource Centre has spoken with persons travelling in some of these areas. They have told of thousands of people displaced from their lands, some for years, starving in the jungle. One who carried
an emaciated child to a Thai town just across the border spoke of the utter shock and disbelief among medical staff at the child’s condition.

That someone literally starving to death can be brought to a hospital in a food secure country only a few miles away speaks to the seemingly incongruous conditions that exist in Myanmar. The land is fertile, yet less and less of it is available to ordinary Myanmar civilians. Farmers work, yet are not adequately compensated. Food is produced, yet people go hungry.

These contradictions are not coincidental. Where a government is concerned more with the welfare of white elephants than that of its own people; more with its own survival than the costs incurred by others, such conditions are virtually guaranteed. Sadly, until the government’s priorities are changed through the will of the international community, people in Myanmar will continue to have less food than they actually need.

End Notes

1 Document E/ CN. 4/ 2003/ NGO/ 151, available on the ALRC website at [http:// www. alrc. net/ mainfile. php/ 59written_ item14c/ 196/] and the
UN website at [http:// www. unhchr. ch/ Huridocda/ Huridoca. nsf/ (Symbol)/ E. CN. 4.2003. NGO. 151. En? Opendocument)].

2 Document E/ CN. 4/ 2003/ NGO/ 84, available on the ALRC website at [http:// www. alrc. net/ mainfile. php/ 59written_ item10/ 168/] and the UN
website at [http:// www. unhchr. ch/ Huridocda/ Huridoca. nsf/( Symbol)/ E. CN. 4.2003. NGO. 84. En? Opendocument]

3 At the time of going to print, Dr Salai Tun Than was released from Insein Prison after widespread international lobbying on his behalf. Notwithstanding, the issues arising out of his case raised in ALRC’s statement remain pertinent.

4 Mr Ali Saleem of the Asian Legal Resource Centre made this oral intervention to the UN Commission on Human Rights on 7 April 2003. It is available on the ALRC website at [http:// www. alrc. net/ mainfile. php/ 59oral/ 202/].