Tag Archives: International Committee of the Red Cross

Visit to UNDP ends in prison

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Among the many people in Rangoon’s central jail who shouldn’t be there are a couple of journalists. These two did not write or say anything against the government. They didn’t do anything that constituted a threat to the army or its hold on power. Yet they were imprisoned on a charge of inciting others to “commit an offence against the state.”

How this happened illustrates the difficulties faced by people in Burma wanting to improve their society without putting themselves at risk.

The story begins just after Cyclone Nargis hit the country last May. The house of 24-year-old reporter Eint Khine Oo in the outer suburbs of Rangoon was not too badly damaged. After she and her family had patched it up, she started travelling around nearby areas to see how she could help. She worked with the local Red Cross, and sent some news to her journal, Ecovision.

Around a month later she ran into 29-year-old Kyaw Kyaw Thant, another reporter and a former editor of the popular Weekly Eleven journal. He had also been looking around to see what was going on and what he could do about it. Like so many people, he brought food and money to cyclone victims. He gave the money to Red Cross personnel to pay for some medicines.

The two of them got talking. Local authorities were trying to force a group of homeless people staying at a religious hall to go back to their now nonexistent houses. The people didn’t want to stay in the hall, but it was raining and they had no materials with which to make temporary shelters back where they had come from.

The reporters spoke with Red Cross country staff and agreed to go to the International Committee of the Red Cross in town, in the naive hope that they might be able to get some assistance there. But rather than going by themselves they decided it would be better if some of the people in need of the materials came too.

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Rice & rationality

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Note: This comment appeared in Jurist on November 7

The renewal of small protests in Burma during recent days should come as no surprise to anyone other than those persons who have written foolish articles making out that what happened in September was somehow not the doing of the people there themselves but rather a consequence of covert American foreign policy.

Every society has its threshold, the point after which it will no longer tolerate things going on as before. The threshold for people in Burma is much higher than that of many other societies today, and thus they have put up with a lot more for a lot longer than might otherwise have been expected. This does not mean that they have not fought back, but rather that their forms of resistance have not attracted much outside interest, nor seriously threatened the army’s hold on power. Rather, many have served to keep the country back from the threshold for so long.

But it is no longer possible for people there to use ordinary methods of defiance to alleviate their problems. The conditions under which they are being forced to live have become intolerable. The protests are a consequence of the threshold being reached, not engineering from the outside. The struggle that is on now in Burma is ultimately a struggle for survival.

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The generals’ mythical compromise

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While hundreds of persons remain detained or are missing in the aftermath of the uprising that gripped Burma in September, and new sporadic protests emerge [and here], its national newspapers have consisted of the usual phalanx of army officers forcing their largesse onto Buddhist monks and attending an all-important performing arts festival.

On Oct. 20, newspaper headlines declared that the new prime minister, Lt.-Gen. Thein Sein, had the day before watched a performance of the Suwannasama legend, one of ten allegories about previous lives of Gautama Buddha that is known to the majority of people in Burma by way of religious homilies and primary school lessons.

Suwannasama, the story goes, is a young man who lives with his blind parents in a forest. One day a king on a hunting trip accidentally shoots him dead, but a sympathetic deity brings him back to life. The king is remorseful and devotes himself to the family, thereafter being reborn in a higher plane of existence. The elderly mother and father even regain their sight.

The choice of drama appears to have been intended as a message that with a little bit of compromise everybody in Burma, like the play’s protagonists, can come out ahead. A long-winded feature article belabored the point, concluding that it would be in the interests of all to heed the folktale’s lessons. And on the days before and after there were other equally gripping reports of senior officers watching the play.

But the spirit of compromise has itself quickly turned to myth.

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Bickering about sanctions gets Burma nowhere

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The Hong Kong University this week hosted a talk on recent events in Burma by its dean of social sciences, who was billed as arguing “for new forms of intervention that take policy responses beyond the bankrupt strategies of sanctions imposed by Western states and constructive engagement undertaken by Asian states.”

Unfortunately, the professor gave no such argument. His comments, although well intended, foundered on the ground over which they were supposed to pass: sanctions don’t work; some kind of engagement is necessary. He pinned his hopes on a different sort of corporate involvement, while acknowledging that there exist no legal or institutional arrangements in Burma through which investors can be held accountable or upon which they can place their trust.

There is nothing new in any of that. Long before the United States first imposed a formal ban in 1997, arguments were raging about its practical use, given that Burma has few direct economic ties with the West. The disagreements have continued for the last decade. But genuine debate has long since given way to the tired reiterating of immoveable opinions.

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Burma’s long & steady downward slide

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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.

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