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RIGHTS-BURMA: UN Envoy’s Visit – Facelift for Junta?

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 23 2007 (IPS) - While they welcome the return of a U.N. human rights envoy to Burma, political exiles from the country are asking pointed questions such as who stands to gain most from the high-profile visit.

Burmese refugee women in ethnic Chin, Kachin, Arakan and Karen costumes demonstrate in New Delhi Credit: Mizzima

Burmese refugee women in ethnic Chin, Kachin, Arakan and Karen costumes demonstrate in New Delhi Credit: Mizzima

The concerns of groups like the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a network of former Burmese political prisoners who have fled the country, are with reason. After all, nearly a month after the Burmese junta mounted a brutal crackdown on unarmed Buddhist monks and civilians protesting on the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere, the South-east Asian nation still remains gripped by fear.

‘’For whose benefit is this visit? Is it to help the people of Burma who have been victims of the military regimes crackdown or to help restore the regime’s image?’’ asks Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and a senior member of AAPP, which is based in Mae Sot, a town near the Thai-Burma border. ‘’I am worried that this visit will help to ease the international pressure on the regime and nothing more.’’

Others who represent the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the democratically elected government forced into exile since 1990, have similar reasons to be sceptical. ‘’We don’t want this to be another attempt by the junta to buy more time for its own political agenda. The military regime always offers such gestures when under tremendous international pressure,’’ says Zin Linn, information director of the NCGUB.

Such comments made to IPS follow the junta’s decision Monday to lift a four-year ban on Paolo Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian diplomat, enabling him to return to Burma in the coming weeks. The U.N. human rights envoy was last in the country in November 2003, a visit that gained notoriety after Pinheiro discovered that a room he was talking to political prisoners had been bugged.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is formally known, has come under a wave of international criticism for the harsh measures used to stifle street protests that first began over the sudden spike in fuel prices and then mushroomed into an anti-government demonstration. In late September, the generals conceded some ground by permitting a special U.N. envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to visit the country on a political mission.

But such a concession did not stop the junta, which has renamed the country Mynamar, from going after dissidents, Buddhist monks and any suspected opposition sympathiser with force. Sources in Rangoon say that the regime’s recent lifting of a curfew at night has given little comfort, since families fear a knock on the door after dark followed by arrests.

And even an announcement by the SPDC in early October that it has appointed a deputy minister to serve as an intermediary between the leader of the junta and the head of the pro-democracy opposition has not been translated into action. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest, continues to remain isolated from any move towards reconciliation. And so, too, members of her political party, the National League for Democracy.

By the weekend, the junta admitted that it had detained nearly 3,000 people since the late-September crackdown and warned that it was going to target more people suspected of being involved in the anti-government demonstrations. The street protests that began in mid-August were a rare sign of public outrage that had not been seen in nearly two decades.

Pinheiro’s visit is being viewed as a litmus test of how open the junta is towards engagement with the international community. ‘’His visit should not be limited to a diplomatic exercise of only meeting officials, but he should be permitted to conduct an investigation on all human rights violations that took place,’’ Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN, a regional human rights body, told IPS. ‘’We would like Mr. Pinheiro to speak to the monks and other victims who were detained to find out what happened to them.’’

As relevant, says Bo Kyi, is for the U.N. to secure a guarantee from the SPDC that witnesses and victims who speak to Pinheiro will not be arrested after he leaves Burma. ‘’There is a serious problem over whether he will be able to conduct his inquiries in a free and open manner. And for that he needs to be assured that people who talk to him will not be abused by the regime and detained.’’

The AAPP, in fact, has documented cases of how the SPDC targeted political prisoners and activists who had revealed details to Pinheiro during his previous visits. ‘’The SPDC had people following Pinheiro wherever he went and they would threaten people to only say good things if interviewed by Pinheiro,’’ adds Bo Kyi. ‘’People in Burma know this and they will be afraid to talk to him this time.’’

Such impediments, however, have not stopped Pinheiro from painting a grim picture of human rights violations in Burma when presenting his regular reports to the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council. In the past, he has shed light on the plight of the 1,100 political prisoners in the country, the use of forced labour, the harsh restrictions on political and civil liberties and the large scale abuse directed at the country’s ethnic minorities.

That Pinheiro’s impending visit will exceed all his previous visits in terms of political pressure and high expectation stems form another disturbing feature. Since the brutal suppression of the peaceful protests, no clear record has emerged of the number of people who were killed. While the junta sticks to a death toll of 10, anti-government groups say that some 200 people were killed.

‘’There is much that we will look for before saying that some progress has been made and this visit is some kind of a success,’’ says Zin Linn, of the NCGUB. ‘’Mr. Pinheiro should know that there is currently a reign of terror inside Burma.’’

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