The International Committee of the Red Cross two weeks ago issued a remarkable press release on Burma. Remarkable, because in contrast to the committee’s usually circumspect approach in discussing problems of government in countries where it operates, it now damns the regime there for its continued gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.
The committee’s president, Jakob Kellenberger, is quoted in the release as describing Burma’s authorities as being directly responsible for “immense suffering for thousands of people in conflict-affected areas.” The committee lambastes the army for “the large-scale destruction of food supplies and of means of production” and restrictions that make it “impossible for many villagers to work in their fields.”
The statement, which comes at a time that the committee is dramatically scaling down its operations in Burma after repeated failed attempts at getting the freedom it needs to work according to its mandate, coincided with the leaking of an internal report by the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator to Burma, Charles Petrie, which characterizes the poverty weighing down millions throughout the country as a consequence of “ill-informed and outdated socio-economic policies.” It refers to the U.N. strategy for intervention in the country as premised on “the belief that the downward slide could still be checked.” But today even many optimists would question that assessment, and it is doubtful that the coordinator believes it himself.
Burma’s downward slide has been long and steady.
Since two decades back, when its superficially socialist economy collapsed, precipitating a nationwide uprising in 1988, living standards of most people have gone from bad to worse. A period of business optimism ended with the 1997 fall in Asian markets. Recent years had seen some opening of space for international organizations and even a few semi-independent local partners, but this too is now being lost.
The downward slide also has been no secret. By 1997, when concerned eminent persons from neighboring countries set up a special people’s tribunal to probe the links between food scarcity and military rule in Burma, the general features and scope of human rights abuse there were already on record. Thus, the tribunal did not seek simply to document, decry and condemn, but also to investigate and to explain how a country that should be able to feed its people seemed unable to do so. Its members were shocked by what they heard; this from a young landless farmer living in the lowlands:
“Taxes and oppression are starving the village. There’s no time to work, only to pay taxes and do forced labor; many villagers have little food. Some must eat porridge; some only water skimmed off boiled rice, and others only sweet potatoes. To feed the children some adults go without food for one or two days at a time. Even so, children increasingly suffer diarrhea, sore stomachs and death.”
In 1999, the tribunal concluded that hunger in Burma was the result of a common cause, which by all accounts “is social rather than natural, rooted in the structure and actions of the state rather than vagaries of land and climate.” Thus, “Militarization does not simply implicate the Burma army (its part in creating food scarcity is obvious), but more importantly, suggests that authoritarianism, oppression and violence have become ingrained in routine government business.”
The tribunal did not give any cause for encouragement. It did not see any reason to believe that military rule and concomitant hunger in Burma would end any time soon; on the contrary, its findings suggested the opposite. Regrettably, they proved correct. The farmer describing conditions in his village ten years ago could just as easily have been speaking yesterday.
Having reached the end of its tether, the International Committee of the Red Cross has come out to state the obvious: that Burma’s government is the preeminent cause of the country’s degradation. But in this also there is little room for reassurance. Indeed, it brings the committee no further forward than the tribunal was years ago, in part because of the unavoidable contradiction facing all those doing humanitarian work under authoritarian states: the cause of the problems is in the government; but the solution to the problems must also be through the government. The question then arises, where in the cause of the problems can ways be found toward solutions? Eight years after the people’s tribunal presented its findings, the answer remains elusive. Perhaps we need some new questions.
Voice of the Hungry Nation, People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma: http://www.foodjustice.net/burma/1996-2000tribunal/report/index.htm
ICRC Myanmar: http://www.icrc.org/Web/Eng/siteeng0.nsf/htmlall/myanmar