Democracy and Human Rights in Burma


8-22-07, 9:19 am

Editor's Note: Interview with Thein Win, M.D., Chairperson, Free Burma Campaign, South Africa. For additional information see this resolution on democracy in Burma adopted by the South African Communist Party. the interview was conducted by Joe Sims.

PA: Can you tell our readers about your organization and its objectives?

TW: Our organization, the Free Burma Campaign, South Africa, is made up of exile Burmese activists in South Africa, along with native South African civil rights and former anti-apartheid activists. One of our patrons is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is deeply committed to our cause and strongly supports the struggle for freedom, justice and democracy in Burma.

Our main objectives are 1) to raise general awareness at the grassroots level in South Africa about the situation in Burma, especially the serious human rights violations committed by the illegitimate military regime, and 2) to gain the active support of South African civil rights and religious organizations, intellectuals and academics, the political parties, and the South African government. We are urging the government of South Africa to support our cause and to engage in concerted action with the UN and the international community to help achieve our goals.

PA: Given your country's oppressive political conditions, what are your immediate objectives?

TW: Unfortunately, the current situation in Burma is quite dire. Let me explain how that situation affects our immediate objectives.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a democratic elections in 1990 with 81% of the parliamentary seats. Despite this massive vote for democratic change, the military regime continues with its so-called “seven-step road map to democracy,” without the representation or cooperation of the Burmese people, and ignoring all international appeals, including those of the UN. The military regime’s National Convention, now 14 years old, is attended only by hand-picked pro-government people. In its road map, the government stipulates that in any future parliament 25% of the seats must be elected from the military and that the head of state MUST have military experience. Such a “democratic parliament” exists nowhere on earth!

The situation in Burma is now approaching a boiling point. We absolutely cannot accept such a regime-orchestrated constitution. It will definitely be opposed by the people of Burma. The regime will not hesitate to use 'force,' but we do not want to see bloodshed again, as happened during the 1988 pro-democracy movement. The only way to avoid this undesirable violence is for the UN-led international community to intervene effectively and to halt the implementation of the regime's fraudulent road map.

Obviously the Free Burma Campaign’s immediate objective is to make the voice of the Burmese people heard in South Africa, and internationally as well, including the United Nations. I am hoping that the UN will not again have to say 'we’re sorry,' as it did after the genocidal massacre in Rwanda where up to 800,000 people died. The UN must act as soon as the early warning signs appear and not wait until the boiling point occurs, and then say “sorry” once again. The South African government needs to reconsider their decision to vote in the UN Security Council to block discussion of human rights abuses in Burma. South Africa should by now be well aware of the Burmese regime’s obstinacy and it willingness to ignore international appeals. PA: Could you tell us a little more about your country and its people?

TW: Burma, with a population of over 50 million, was under British colonial rule for more than 100 years and finally gained independence in 1948. We enjoyed democracy for 14 years and become one of the most economically promising countries in Asia. But the army coup in 1962 turned Burma into a least developed country (LDC), because of the gross mismanagement of the totalitarian regime led by General Ne Win.

The people of Burma believe in non-violence. We are a friendly and humble people, who try to live good lives even though we are poor and suffer under military oppression. The Burmese people rarely complain and are not of a demanding nature. However, in 1988 the people just could not take any more. 'Enough is enough,' we said to the military government and came out on the streets of Burma in a spontaneous, country-wide, pro-democracy movement – but without proper leadership.

The country has many ethnic groups, including the Burman. Although the majority of the military regime are Burman, the major problems are really between the regime and all the countries ethnic groups, because the regime has denied the basic rights of all ethnic nationalities, including the Burman. However, the worst oppression is suffered by ethnic groups who live in the country’s frontier areas. The people of Burma are not greedy and not are not demanding anything exorbitant. They are simply asking for their basic human rights, for justice and the rule of law, all of which are denied them by the illegitimate military regime. In fact, these are innate human rights, and the Burmese people should not have to ask the military regime for them.

PA: What is the role of trade unions and other mass organizations in Burma?

TW: To answer your question very simply, there has not been a single, independent trade union or mass organization in Burma since the military coup in 1962. Of course, free and independent organizations did manage to survive for a few weeks in 1988 during the pro-democracy movement, but only until the current regime assumed absolute state power.

There are now so-called mass organizations like the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). This was formed by the regime in 1992 under the patronage of the Chairman of the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), Senior-General Than Shwe. It receives the government’s full support, both financial and technical, and of course its leadership is also provided by the regime. The Central Executive Committee of the USDA is composed of generals and veteran military officers. From the CEC directives flow down to the townships and then to the village level. The regime uses the USDA to crack own on democracy activists, the National League for Democracy, and all its supporters.

PA: Could you say a few words about the status of women?

TW: I would say, to put it bluntly, that today in Burma women are under attack. The regime practices systematic violations of human rights, especially against women, using rape and other forms of sexual violence. On some occasions, women have been deliberately raped in front of their relatives because the government wants to show the people how they will suffer if they do not obey the army command. The regime always denies such accusations, calling them 'groundless and misleading.” However, I refer you to the report, 'License to Rape' which was submitted to UN by the Shan Women’s Organization. It contains 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women, committed by Burmese army troops in the Shan state alone.

However, the regime wants to hide this reality. The ruling SPDC has been regularly participating in women's forums sponsored by the UN since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, to which the SPDC sent a delegation - led by a male military officer. In 1996, it established the Myanmar National Committee for Women's Affairs (MNCWA), whose military patrons are all men. Working committees to recruit members by force have been formed at all levels: state, district, township and village. Almost all of these committees are led by wives of SPDC personnel. Of course, the SPDC itself is 'a no-woman’s land.' In 1997, the SPDC even signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and submitted their first report to the CEDAW in 2000. The Burmese delegation to the committee was led by a man! In order to present a pro-women facade to the international community, the regime has also formed many “women's organizations” such as the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (MMCWA), the Myanmar Women’s Sports Federation (MWSF), and the Myanmar Women’s Entrepreneur Association (MWEA). PA: How are your struggles supported where you are, and what can others do?

TW: The Free Burma Campaign, South Africa is financially self-supporting, but it receives sympathetic support from local South African and Burmese people. We are proud to say that our campaign has the firm solidarity and support of COSATU (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) with its almost 2 millions members, as well as the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Young Communist League (YCL), who are partners, together with the African National Congress government, in the Tripartite Alliance. Many civic and student organizations (such as SASCO), the Anti-privatization Forum (APF), and others support our work.

Although the ANC Government unfortunately voted against the Burma resolution recently before the UN Security Council, because of what they now describe as a “technical matter,” they have also publicly declared the government’s extreme concern about human rights violations in Burma. I sincerely hope that the ANC government will strongly support the cause of Burmese democracy in the future.

In regard to winning support for the Free Burma Campaign internationally, it should be noted that we have thus far gained more support from the “North” than the “South.” In my view, the underdeveloped South has been somewhat reluctant to support our struggle because of the nature of the international balance of power, and because of the strategic political games that are played between the North and the South. However, we appeal to the entire international community, both North and South, to support the struggle of the Burmese people for freedom. All human beings should support us, because basically what we are confronting here is a major human rights issue. It is definitely not just an 'ism' issue. The bottom line is that our people, the citizens of our country, have been suffering under the heel of military oppression for a very long time. Their pain has gone on long enough. The more the world's politicians focus on the political equation, if they concentrate on the political “game,” the more the people of Burma will suffer. The regime is well aware of this international political game and uses it to stay in power.

I am very glad that the leadership of the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions have such a clear vision in this regard. We appeal to the entire international community, and especially to our comrades on the left who, in balancing the political equation, it is crucial to unite against the Burmese military junta and support our struggle for freedom – for the sake of the people of Burma. For a non-violent people to be crushed under the boot of the military for nearly five decades is far too long. We yearn for the support of the entire international community, so that the truth of our cause can prevail at last.

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