The latest report of a United Nations independent expert has rightly inferred that the deepening poverty of millions is the most endemic human rights abuse in Burma today.
The report, by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, notes that even government figures reveal that citizens spend around 73 percent of their disposable incomes on food alone, while international agencies estimate that one child in three aged under five is malnourished.
The preponderant cause of this misery is the government itself. Pinheiro observes that, for instance, the confiscating of land is often followed by new big projects which in turn bring more suffering. He points to seven new hydroelectric schemes in the north that have been accompanied by military demands for labor, money and goods from people living in their vicinity, to say nothing of the environmental damage caused.
All of this is very far removed from the unceasing images in state-run media of generals standing resolutely above new dams, cutting ribbons at the entrances of schools, and strolling over carpets of petals strewn by maidens across big bridges. In their world, national development is measured in terms of cubic meters of concrete poured and machines itemized. What can be seen to have been done is what matters.
The propaganda is striking because it is in these fields that the regime is failing spectacularly. The new bridges span rivers which are reached by roads of such poor condition that hire vehicles refuse to travel them. Schools have classrooms and chairs but lack teachers, and for that matter, students. Power lines run to houses without metering devices, and the dams anyhow are not supplying those with them: households boil rice with charcoal because constant outages mean that an electric cooker switched on for dinner may not be ready until breakfast.
Moreover, as Burma’s people have been forced to continue treading rocky roads, so too has the U.N.’s expert.
Eight years ago, Pinheiro got off to a good start. He took the job seriously and his preliminary reports were expansive and thoughtful. He built some bridges of his own and was able to do what his predecessors had not: visit the country. He accessed government ministries and prisons, but when he found a microphone under a table in an interview room during March 2003, he left. He was unable to come back until last year, when the authorities reluctantly conceded him a visit in the aftermath of the September uprising.
In the interim, Pinheiro continued to research from abroad and release findings annually, but his interest seemingly waned. His early attempts at getting a grip on things gave way to straightforward documenting, alongside frustrated comments about his inability to do more. By last year he had already exceeded his tenure, and would, like those before him have, quietly slipped away, but for the protests.
Pinheiro’s final report embodies both the usefulness of the work that he has done in these years as well as its profound flaws. On the one hand, the report establishes the commonality of humanitarian and human rights problems in Burma and correctly asserts that the unaccountability of state officials is a cause of rural poverty. It also argues that judicial non-independence is one reason for the growing gap between rich and poor, and calls for more research into land and resource management.
On the other, it stops short of exploring precisely how indigence is exacerbated by impunity and what international groups working in Burma can try to do about it. It glosses over problems of the judiciary before going on to talk about political prisoners, and does not draw lines between these cases and bigger issues of perverted criminal procedure. It iterates concern for the “continued misuse of the legal system” without examining what this really means.
Ultimately, the report encapsulates the enduring problem of the international community in dealing with Burma: we know what is going on, but we don’t. Incidents are documented, but their significance not properly understood. The linkages of human rights and humanitarian concerns are acknowledged, but no serious attempts are made at devising a common understanding of them, let alone a comprehensive strategy to address them. So things go on as usual, even if people pretend otherwise.
Human rights work can’t be assigned numerical value, so it’s not possible to conclude whether or not Pinheiro’s eight years were in balance worth it or not. But as an epitaph to his time served and a reminder to those continuing the job we have the following, not from his most recent report but from his statement to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (now Human Rights Council) in 2004:
“I am convinced that this commission must act fast to strengthen the credibility of its special procedures. What is the value of making recommendations if member states neglect most of what we report or recommend? I must confess that I have made efforts always to include in my reports, recommendations that are both concrete and realistic… I must nonetheless report that the implementation of my recommendations by the government has been limited.”
Source: Burma’s rocky roads