Six men in Burma have been jailed on account of a duck. Anyone wanting to appreciate the real nature of human rights abuse there, and also why years of international efforts have so far failed to effect any significant change, should take interest in how and why.
This April, a crowd suddenly attacked four persons traveling through a village in the delta on motorcycles, injuring two, one seriously. The latter, Ko Myint Naing (lying injured, above), made a complaint to the local court that village council members, police and quasi-government officials had coordinated the assault. The reason? He and his friends had been talking about human rights.
It is important to realize that even under Burma’s authoritarian regime it is not illegal to promote human rights. On the contrary, officials have in the past themselves been schooled on them by Australians. They sometimes even get a mention in official propaganda. The country also has been a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the beginning and in recent years has joined two important agreements on women and children. Myint Naing and the others were merely distributing copies of these and related domestic laws and informing villagers of their contents.
The assault attracted some passing concern. A spokesperson for a big human rights group said that the government “should order its thugs to stop harassing people for promoting human rights.” Two United Nations experts called for the authorities “to take all the necessary steps to protect human rights defenders” and “conduct an independent and thorough investigation into this event.”
Unsurprisingly, none of these things happened.
Instead, gang attacks continued and Myint Naing and five local farmers with whom he had cooperated were themselves accused of upsetting public tranquility, thanks in part to the duck, which in January a teenager and his friends were accused of stealing from the local council chairman. When they failed to pay the full recompense demanded, council members allegedly assaulted him and took him to the police. Myint Naing, who knew the boy, tried to help him out. Another time, he came to assist someone accused of causing a bicycle accident with a schoolteacher.
While a stolen duck and bicycle collision are unlikely to threaten the state — even one as paranoid and introverted as that in Burma — they were sufficient cause for Myint Naing to be rebuked in the press and jailed for eight years under a regulation once written by the British to suppress anti-colonial dissent; the farmers received four years each. Their families are struggling to survive without them.
Again the sentence attracted fleeting media interest and ritual censure from
abroad. But the six are still in jail and no one has gone beyond shallow reporting and criticism to glean the full facts and what they signify about human rights abuse in Burma.
This is one reason that outside approaches to human rights problems there have been wanting. Take the U.N. experts’ response to this case. On the one hand, it elevated the attack victims to a category worthy of comment, as human rights defenders. Had they been assailed over a personal dispute, they would not have obtained outside interest. Had they been one of any number of persons whom police and local officials in Burma routinely assault and kill for trivial reasons they also would not have received so much notice. The young man who was beaten up because of the duck — and against whom charges are pending — remains of no particular interest.
On the other hand, having accorded the victims a special status, the United Nations did nothing useful for them. The two experts called for the relevant authorities to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the attack. Which relevant authorities? If pressed, would the experts be able to identify any? And if not, what is the point of demanding action by imaginary persons and agencies? What benefit is there in pretending that something exists where there is in fact nothing?
Thus, not only do concerned outside groups and individuals fail to intervene effectively on behalf of individual victims, they also fail to enrich the impoverished dialogue on human rights in Burma through some thoughtful analysis or new insight, or even by telling the truth: that there is no one in Burma who can make an independent inquiry about anything.
Here is the challenge for work on human rights not only in Burma but also throughout Asia. Well-meaning international monitors approach and critique specific incidents in terms of global norms — as they must — but fail to bridge the gap between those norms and local realities through detailed studies of how and why something has actually occurred. The gap is easily identified, but little attempt is made to understand what it really means and what can be done about it. What follows instead is the pretence that there exist relevant authorities who must somehow bridge it themselves, when neither they, nor the will, exist to make it so.
Both the abuse and defense of human rights can be understood only through frank and detailed assessments of what is actually going on, rather than what is supposed to be so. To comprehend violence against human rights defenders in Burma today, it is necessary to start with the blows upon a teenager accused of stealing a village chairman’s duck, rather than abstract notions of relevant authorities found only in the offices of Geneva.
The rights of the six jailed men are only as good as his, and their fates are inextricably tied. If the boy can’t be helped, then what hope have they? If his problems can’t be gauged and addressed, then how can theirs?
Concerted attacks on human rights defenders demand stronger and better-informed international response, AHRC Open Letter: http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2007statements/1135