Toward Democracy, Human Rights and Federalism

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Development As Freedom

Friday, September 21 2007, 10:25 AM EDT

It is believed that 14 activists from the 88 Generation Students Group who have been detained will be charged under Law 5/96, which provides for up to 20 years imprisonment for anyone who is found guilty of expressing opinions which disrupt the stability of the state, or "undermine, belittle and make people misunderstand the functions being carried out by the National Convention." If they are charged and sentenced, this will be a significant setback to efforts to promote national reconciliation, good governance and respect for fundamental human rights in Burma. (Source: NCGUB)

Development as Freedom: Struggling for Survival in Burma – The Ongoing Crackdown by the Military Regime on Peaceful Protests in Burma

Briefing paper by the Burma UN Service Office
Sixth Session of the Human Rights Council, United Nations, Geneva
September 10-28, 2007

The concept of development as freedom was first introduced by the Indian economist, philosopher and laureate of the Nobel Price in Economic Science, Dr. Amartya Sen, who argued that economic development suffers a set-back when an authoritarian regime deprives a people of their civil and political rights and thereby restricts their freedom to participate in the social, political and economic life of the community.

Burma offers a perfect example. Burma is a resource-rich country with a population of approximately 50 million. The country, which was once known as ‘the rice bowl of Asia’ and a leading exporter of rice to the world market, was granted the status of Least Developed Country by the UN in 1987, after decades of economic mismanagement by successive military regimes.

The latest wave of peaceful protests in Burma, which began in August 2007, was triggered by a sudden increase in the price of fuel, imposed overnight by the government, which brought up the price of transportation of people and goods, as well as of other basic daily commodities.

This briefing paper looks into the recent crisis and the energy sector in Burma to illustrate the relationship between economic development and respect for political and civil rights.

Triggering Crisis: Economic Mismanagement and Public Discontent

The export of natural gas is a key income earner for Burma’s military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The government’s income has increased in recent years, chiefly because of monopoly ownership of oil and gas, and export of natural gas. Burma’s gas export earnings increased from USD 1.073 millions in FY 2005-2006 to USD 2.600 million in FY 2006-2007.

In spite of the increase in income, Burma runs a budget deficit. The deficit has increased from five percent of GDP in 1988 to seven percent of GDP in 2007. Key reasons for the deficit are unnecessary public expenditures. A large share of public expenditures has gone into the construction of Burma’s new capital Naypyiday, as well as the new cyber city of Yadanabone. The government also provides discretionary tax exemptions to crony companies, such as the Htoo Company of Tay Za (a crony of Sr. General Than Shwe), the Aung Thura Mann Company, which belongs to a son of General Shwe Manh, and the Zakabar Khin Shwe, a business owned by the paramilitary Swan Ah Shin group.

Domestic consumption of fuel oil has historically been subsidized in Burma. During the past year, the government’s expenditures for importing fuel oil have increased, from USD 274 millions in FY 2005-2006 to USD 485 millions during the first nine months of the financial year of 2006-2007. This increase is due mainly to an increase in the international market price of fuel oil.

In spite of the increase, the amount spent by the government to subsidize domestic fuel oil consumption does not exceed USD 300 million a year, which represents about 10 percent of the revenue obtained by the military government from the monopoly ownership of oil and gas, and the export of gas.

Instead of taking the increased costs of importing fuel oil, the military government decided to shift the burden on the population. On August 15, 2007, the military junta which also holds a monopoly on the sale of fuel within Burma, suddenly and without prior consultation and warning, raised petrol prices by two-thirds, doubled diesel prices and raised the cost of compressed natural gas five-fold at state owned gas stations across the country.

The impact of the price hike was immediate. The hike hit most families in the country hard as it also brought up the prices of basic commodities, such as rice. Since the price hike, there have been almost daily protests in Rangoon. These have gradually spread to other regions and cities of the country.

The fact that the increase in fuel prices in August was imposed all at once shows that the SPDC is increasingly "out of touch" with the average citizen in Burma. Indeed, the price hike will make it more difficult for many people to survive and will further contribute to reduce the standards of living, at a time when the United Nations and other key players have repeatedly warned about the risk of a severe humanitarian crisis in Burma.

Dealing with the Crisis: Repressing Dissent

The authorities have harshly repressed demonstrators and activists. According to Amnesty International, more than 150 people were detained during the second half of August .

Detainees from the latest crackdown include key figures of the democracy and human rights movement in the country, such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Pyone Cho and Min Zeya of the 88 Generation Students Group, several members of the National League for Democracy, in particular the Youth wing of the party, and Aye Myint from the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters.

Other key figures from the democracy and human rights movement are currently on the run in an attempt to avoid arrest, including well-known female activists such as Nilar Thein and Mi Mi from the 88 Generation Students Group, Htay Kywe (m), the only leader of the 88 Generation Student group to have escaped arrest so far, as well as Phyu Phyu Thin (f), a well-known HIV/AIDS activist and member of the National League for Democracy, and Su Su Nway (f), a well-known labour rights activist and member of the National League for Democracy.

It is believed that 14 activists from the 88 Generation Students Group who have been detained will be charged under Law 5/96, which provides for up to 20 years imprisonment for anyone who is found guilty of expressing opinions which disrupt the stability of the state, or "undermine, belittle and make people misunderstand the functions being carried out by the National Convention." If they are charged and sentenced, this will be a significant setback to efforts to promote national reconciliation, good governance and respect for fundamental human rights in Burma.

On August 30, 2007, detainees at the Kyaikkasan Detention Centre initiated a week-long hunger strike to demand medical treatment for a fellow detainee who was injured during the crackdown on the demonstrators. The hunger strike ended when the injured protestor was taken to hospital and released.

There have been several reports of severe beatings and torture being used to extract confessions and information from detainees in the interrogation centres. Furthermore, all detainees have been held beyond the 24-hour period beyond which it is mandatory, according to Burma’s criminal procedure, to obtain a court order in order to prolong the detention period. However, none of them has been allowed access to a lawyer.

The social instability caused by the most recent wave of arrests has been compounded by the widespread use of violence by the authorities against activists and demonstrators.

According to information received by the Burma UN Service Office, the current crackdown, which shows no sign of abating, is under the command of Col. Than Han, the Supervising Director-General of Burma’s Police Battalions, who has previously been implicated in the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters near Depayin in May 2003.

The crackdown is being carried out by plainclothes members of the security forces, as well as members of the state-sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and the Swan Ah Shin.

Deepening the Crisis: The Political Backdrop

The backdrop of the latest economic crisis is a severe political crisis, which can be expected to worsen as the SPDC has brought the work of the National Convention to an end.

The National Convention, which first convened in 1993, has been tasked with drafting guidelines for a new constitution for Burma, and is the first of the seven steps of the SPDC’s so-called “road map to political reform”, first announced in 2003. The official closing ceremony took place on September 3, 2007.

The outcome of the National Convention will not bring political progress to Burma. Most importantly, it ignores the demands of the country’s ethnic nationalities, such as suggestions for reforms proposed by the Kachin Independence Organization in July 2007. The guidelines also do not provide space for the political opposition of the country, nor do they provide guarantees of respect for fundamental civil rights for all citizens.

In addition, no timeframe has been provided by the SPDC for the coming six steps of the road map, and no effort has been made to provide an explanation for the content of the second step, which is vaguely worded as a “step by step implementation of the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and disciplined democratic system” in the original proposal from 2003. The constitution itself is due to be drafted in the third step.

In addition, the SPDC has yet to respond to a proposal by 92 MPs-elect in Burma, contained in a letter to UN Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-moon dated August 31st, 2007, for reforms in the road map in order to make it acceptable to all key parties in the county.

Leading pro-democracy and human rights activists in Burma, including the National League for Democracy and the 88 Generation Student Group have previously warned that the outcome of National Convention, if there are no reforms, and the unilateral imposition of the military junta’s will on the population are likely to cause further unrest.

There have also been numerous reports of discontent in ethnic minority areas of the country and of increased tensions between the SPDC and influential ethnic ceasefire groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization and the United Wa State Army, which have raised concern of a renewal of armed conflict in Burma.

The latest repression in Burma is but the latest indication that the military regime in Burma is failing in taking responsibility for the welfare of the country and its people and that the combination of bad governance and lack of respect for basic human rights in Burma are now turning the country into a destabilising factor for peace and security in the region and internationally.

Role of the International Community and the United Nations

The latest crisis in Burma has raised concern at the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Myanmar Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro have responded with several public statements of concern.

Burma is at severe risk of entering a period of renewed instability and increased risk of severe violations of human rights, which in turn could lead to further aggravation in the already dire political, human rights, socio-economic and humanitarian situations in the country, thus reinforcing the negative cycle in the country.

The Burma UN Service Office therefore urges the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council to respond urgently to the latest crisis in the country.

Ibrahim Gambari, Special Advisor on Burma/Myanmar to the UN Secretary-General, M. Ban Ki-moon, will be travelling to Burma in October.

Under the current circumstances in Burma, it is vital that Ibrahim Gambari is able to visit Burma as early as possible in order to look into the situation and explore ways to restore national reconciliation and political stability, and that the UN Security Council extends its full backing for his efforts.

The rapid deterioration in the human rights situation in Burma, as indicated by the ongoing repression of peaceful expressions of dissent, also calls for urgent examination by the UN Human Rights Council.

The Burma UN Service Office therefore requests that the situation in Burma be included as an item on the agenda of the Human Rights Council and calls for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to examine the human rights situation in the country, with an emphasis on the following key areas:

• The alarmingly high level of recent detentions and the widespread use of state-sponsored violence against activists and demonstrators, committed by members of the security forces as well as of state-sponsored organisations such as the USDA and the paramilitary Swan Ah Shin, taking place against the backdrop of a country without rule of law and without compliance with international standards of justice, as noted on numerous occasions by the United Nations, and most recently by Amnesty International;

• The continued severe restrictions on political and civil rights, scant respect for economic, social and cultural rights, and severe abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law, as noted publicly by the International Committee of the Red Cross in July 2007 ;

• The failure of the authorities to comply with numerous past requests by the international community, including the UN, to improve the human rights situation in the country, most notably the lack of cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms, such as the continued denial of visa to UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and the failure to heed demands by the UN for an independent international investigations of the Depayin massacre in 2003 as well as numerous reports of rape, sexual violence and grave human rights violations in Shan and other ethnic states.

Burma UN Service Office
New York
13 September, 2006

6th Session of the Human Rights Council
United Nations, Geneva
Item (3) Promotion and Protection of Civil and Political Rights
Oral Intervention by Thaung Htun, World View International Foundation
September 14, 2007

Honorary President and Members of the Council

Allow me to draw your attention to the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in Burma/Myanmar and the urgent need for an immediate response by the UN Human Rights Council.

Since 19 August, peaceful public protests have taken place almost daily in Burma. These protests are a response to a sudden increase in the price of fuel, imposed overnight by the government, which has led to a sharp increase in the price of transportation for people and goods, as well as higher costs for basic daily commodities.

The protests began in the capital, Rangoon (Yangon), but have subsequently spread across the country.

The military response has been heavy-handed. The government has relied on hired thugs from the Union Solidarity and Development Association, an organization supported by the state, as well as the paramilitary Swan Ahar Shin, in order to violently crush the demonstrations.

Peaceful protesters and activists have been subjected to beatings, harassment, intimidations and arrests. As of today, an estimated 193 activists and protesters have been arrested by the police and members of the USDA.

More can be expected as the military government is currently carrying our a sweep across the country in order to detain activists and members of the National League for Democracy, the main opposition party led by Daw Aung San Kyi.

The latest crisis worsened in early September when about 500 Buddhist monks marched peacefully in the town of Pakokku in Central Burma. They were blocked by government troops and civilian thugs, who rounded up fleeing monks, tied them up with lassos and beat them with truncheons and rifle butts. The soldiers also fired several warning shots.

We are gravely concerned about reports of severe beatings and torture being used to extract confessions and information from detainees in interrogation centers. We are also concerned because all detainees have been held beyond the 24-hour period after which it is mandatory, according to Burma’s criminal procedure, to obtain a court order in order to prolong the detention period. However, none of them has been allowed access to a lawyer.

We request the Human Rights Council to strongly urge the regime to abide by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. We call on the regime to ensure that no political prisoner is subjected to torture and inhumane treatment and that all detainees have access to enough food and water, to appropriate medical care, to legal counsel, to visits by family members and to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Among the detainees are 14 prominent activists of the 88’ Generation Students Group. All of them have already spent more than a decade of their life in prison because of their leading role in the democracy movement in Burma in 1988.

The regime has accused these activists of committing terrorist acts and acts of subversion, and of violating Burma’s Law 5/96, which prohibits all attempts to disrupt the process of constitution-drafting by Burma’s National Convention. The convention has finished its work.

We categorically reject these accusations. The government has no basis whatsoever for its claim against activists from the 88’ Generation Students Group. We would like to request the Council to demand the immediate release of these activists.

The human rights conditions in Burma have reached a crisis point. We earnestly urge the Council to urgently discuss the situation in Burma and to dispatch a Commission of Inquiry to look into grave human rights violations in Burma.

Thank you.

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