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BURMA: UN Envoy Pushes For Prison Visits by Red Cross

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 18 2007 (IPS) - By making a case for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to be allowed to resume visiting Burma’s prisons, a United Nations human rights envoy has brought to relief a benchmark that will prove difficult for the country’s military regime to ignore.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro Credit:

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro Credit:

More so after the junta attempted to ward off the global outrage that followed its harsh crackdown on peaceful street protests in late September by assuring the world that it was open to international scrutiny. The junta’s decision to permit Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the U.N. human rights investigator for Burma, to visit the country after a four year ban was itself a reflection of this sea change.

‘’With every authority that I met, I repeated the request that it is in the best interest of the government and the prisoners to grant access to the ICRC in the terms of their methodology,’’ Pinheiro told reporters here Friday evening at the end of a five-day visit to Burma.

Among the officials the Brazilian diplomat met during his stay from Nov. 11-15 were Foreign Affairs Minister Nyan Win, Home Affairs Minister Maj. Gen. Maung Oo, Labour Minister Aung Kyi and Religious Affairs Minister Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung.

Pinheiro’s request is being welcomed by Burma’s former political prisoners who were among the hundreds who were abused or tortured, during years of incarceration in one of the over 70 prisons and labour camps that dot the country. It will place pressure on the junta to go beyond verbal assurances for change and offering a glimmer of hope to the incarcerated victims.

‘’It is important for the ICRC to begin visiting the prisons again. This will help them to know the current situation in the prisons and how the political prisoners are being treated,’’ says Tate Naing, secretary to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a group of former Burmese political prisoners based along the Thai-Burmese border.

‘’The absence of the ICRC from the prisons has resulted in many prisoners suffering,’’ Tate Naing, who was imprisoned for three years for his political views, told IPS. ‘’We know of 102 political prisoners who are seriously ill in prisons and labour camps across Burma.’’

According to the AAPP, there are currently over 1,100 political prisoners and a further 658 people detained by the military regime following the crackdown against protests that began in mid-August and lasted through till late September. Many of them are being held in the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon.

The ICRC began visiting Burmese prisons in September 1999 to monitor the conditions of political prisoners. Part of its humanitarian mission included paying for over 50 percent of the medicines needed by the prisoners and exchanging letters between prisoners and their families.

‘’The ICRC’s visits offered the prisoners some moral support and hope,’’ says Zin Linn, 60, who was a political prisoner for seven years. ‘’Prison officers were always careful before the ICRC made its visits. They avoided committing any violence or abuse on the prisoners.’’

‘’These visits were an important way for the international community to know what was going on inside Burma,’’ Zin Linn, who is currently a spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), explained in an interview. ‘’We knew that they would get the message out through their reports.’’

There was also evidence that the junta conceded to some of the humanitarian agency’s requests during the six years it was permitted to visit prisons. ‘’On the basis of the ICRC’s recommendations, and with its support, the detaining authorities worked to improve the water supply, accommodation, and provision of health care available to detainees,’’ noted the British medical journal ‘The Lancet’ in August this year. ‘’This development led to measurable progress: by 2005, the mortality rate of detainees had dropped by 50, even though it still remained twice as high as within the general population.’’

However the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially called, stepped in with a range of restrictions in 2005, undermining the Geneva-based humanitarian agency’s working climate, including conducting ‘’private interviews’’ with the prisoners. Since then, the ICRC’s prison visits stopped.

In June this year, the relationship between the ICRC and the SPDC hit an unprecedented low. For Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the ICRC, put aside his organisation’s record of quiet diplomacy and confidentiality to publicly denounce the ‘’violations of international humanitarian law committed against civilians and detainees by the government of Myanmar’’.

‘’Since late 2005 the authorities have also prevented the ICRC from visiting places of detention in accordance with its usual procedures,’’ Kellenberger added. ‘’I urge the government of Myanmar to put a stop to all violations of international humanitarian law and to ensure that they do not recur.’’

That little has improved during the years since the ICRC stopped visiting the prisons was revealed by Pinheiro, who was granted access to meet select political prisoners in the Insein jail on the last day of his visit. Among those the U.N. envoy talked to was Win Tin, a journalist and a poet, who at 78 years is the oldest political prisoner in the country and who has spent 18 years in jail.

‘’Win Tin told me he is locked in his cell all day with the exception of one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon,’’ said Pinheiro. ‘’Then I imagine the prisoners are receiving the same treatment as Win Tin.’’

‘’The people detained in Insein need better medical treatment,’’ he added. ‘’It is an old prison, overcrowded.’’

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