[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]


                            by David Arnott 
                   Secretary, Burma Peace Foundation, 
                  Coordinator, FREE SUU KYI, FREE BURMA
                    18 August 95 (Reposted 21 Sept 95)
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's resistance to SLORC[1] has been
complemented by the international work of the NCGUB[2] and
representatives of non-Burman nationalities. Since 1991 this work
has taken them to international conferences, national capitals, 
and the United Nations. Their presence at the UN has made a
significant contribution towards strengthening the resolutions on
Burma. The growing condemnation of SLORC contained in these
resolutions has been a major factor in maintaining the de facto
sanctions imposed in 1988 by the international community. In this
and in other ways the Burmese Democracy Movement has been able to
act internationally to increase the pressure on SLORC.
Since 1989 I have attended most sessions of the principal UN
human rights meetings, namely the 3rd Committee of the General
Assembly (GA) in New York, and the Commission on Human Rights
(CHR) in Geneva. My task has been to monitor the meetings and
provide diplomats and UN officers with documentation and analyses
on the human rights situation in Burma. In the early years,
especially in Geneva, I also helped the delegations from the
Burmese Democracy Movement and the non-Burman nationalities meet
diplomats and UN officials, and provided technical assistance in
preparing interventions and drafting language for the
resolutions. As the delegations became more experienced in these
areas, I was able to concentrate more on documentation and
With this introduction to my credentials as an informed
commentator, I would like to describe the UN-related activities
of the NCGUB and representatives of the non-Burman peoples. While
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been on enforced retreat, the
delegations led by the NCGUB have been working away at the
international level, and with considerable effect. Their
activities have of course not been limited to UN work, but since
this is what I have seen at first hand, it is all I will
                             THE UN AND BURMA
How can the UN protect human rights in a country like Burma,
where the traditional Buddhist values of love, compassion and
non-violence have little impact on the day-to-day conduct of the
military, which apparently lacks any understanding or respect for
the very idea of human rights? 
One way is to expose governments, SLORC in this case, to
international scrutiny and criticism by means of public reports,
speeches and resolutions. The annual sessions of the GA and CHR
are a period of intense humiliation for SLORC, which finds itself
publicly dissected and universally condemned. This damages SLORC
both politically and economically:
Politically, the condemnations undermine the image of legitimacy
SLORC seeks to project within the country. One has only to read a
few issues of "The New Light of Myanmar" to see how hard the
generals work at presenting themselves as legitimate rulers: they
speak of themselves as "the legal fold" to which the "rebel"
groups return; they engage in highly-publicised devotions to
senior Buddhist monks; they stride around opening roads and
bridges; they even claim legitimacy from Burma's membership in
the United Nations, though UN membership belongs to States, not
governments. "A Fascist Disneyland" is how one Western diplomat
in Rangoon described SLORC rule. 
The ever-stronger condemnation of SLORC's human rights record in
UN reports and resolutions, and the UN demand that power be
transferred to the elected representatives, are well-known to the
Burmese people, who listen to the Burmese service of the BBC, VOA
and the Democratic Voice of Burma. The discepency between the
international assessment and the image the generals seek to
project undermines SLORC's status and thus its internal political
Economically, UN condemnation of SLORC is one of the main reasons
why the de facto sanctions imposed after the bloodbath of 1988
have not been lifted. There have been no World Bank or IMF loans;
UNDP assistance has been reduced to small humanitarian
programmes; and bilateral assistance from donor countries has not
been renewed, apart from minor (but symbolically important) aid
from Japan. Since economic mismanagement by the military has
driven the country from the position of "ricebowl of Asia" to
being one of the poorest countries in the world, with a growing
polarisation between rich and poor, SLORC is in desperate need of
international assistance, in spite of Chinese and Singaporean
SLORC has sought to soften UN criticism by making "gestures"
or "concessions" on the eve of the human rights meetings. For
instance the "unilateral cease-fire" against the Karen was
announced during the 1993 GA session. The timing of Aung San Suu
Kyi's release may have involved additional factors, but certain
mischievous folks are already betting on the date that talks
begin between the NLD and SLORC.
1) Lacking popular support or economic competence, the generals
have ruled by military coercion and terror, involving severe
and widespread human rights violations. These violations have
been widely and accurately documented and fed into the UN human
rights machinery.  
2) The diplomats leading on the Burma resolutions (Sweden at the
GA and France at the CHR) have been very skillful.
3) The NCGUB, led by Aung San Suu Kyi's cousin, Dr Sein Win, has
been particularly effective in Geneva and New York. Under its
leadership, delegations of elected parliamentarians and
representatives of non-Burman nationalities have lobbied the GA
and the CHR since 1991. At last year's session of the GA, for
example, the Delegation visited more than 70 country missions to
argue for specific wording to be included in the resolutions.
Their legitimacy as representatives of the Burmese people is
tacitly recognised by diplomats, who are very open to the NCGUB
proposals concerning the resolutions. 
4) Unlike China, Burma can't hit back.
To provide some background and to illustrate some of the
dynamics involved, here are a couple of texts I dug out of the
archives: an op-ed (unpublished) I wrote after the adoption of
the 1992 GA resolution, and a press release describing an
incident at the CHR in 1994: 
     At the 1992 session of the General Assembly the Burmese
military junta suffered its greatest defeat so far at the UN,
when a strongly-worded resolution on Burma was adopted by
consensus[3]. The resolution criticizes the junta's human rights
record, its failure to hand over power to the  victors in the
1990 elections, and calls for the unconditional release of Nobel
Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.  
     The adoption of the resolution followed several weeks of
quiet diplomatic combat in New York between representatives of
the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and a
delegation led by Dr Sein Win, Prime Minister of the Burmese
parallel government, the National Coalition Government of the
Union of Burma. 
     Dr Sein Win is a softly-spoken mathematician, and a cousin
of Aung San Suu Kyi, now in her fourth year of house arrest in
Rangoon. He was one of the members of parliament elected in the
Burmese general elections of May 1990, in which the opposition
won 85% of the seats. When it became clear that SLORC was not
going to transfer power to the elected representatives, but
instead was systematically arresting them, Dr Sein Win's
parliamentary colleagues asked him to set up a parallel
government in a safe area. This was established in December 1990
in the territory of the Karen, one of the  ethnic  groups engaged
in the civil war with Rangoon, which is now in its 44th year.  
     In New York Dr Sein Win was accompanied by other  members of
parliament elected in 1990 and also, significantly, by a number
of leaders and representatives of the groups which comprise the
ethnic opposition to SLORC rule. During their stay they visited
many ambassadors and senior diplomats to the UN from most parts
of the world, to explain their position and the situation in
Burma, and to seek support for a strong resolution on Burma at
the General Assembly.
      At the State level  Sweden led very effectively in working
for a strong consensus resolution, supported by France, Australia
and the UK among others.  It is important to note that although
the resolution had no Asian co-sponsors, a number of Asian
countries which are rapidly growing impatient with the generals
in Rangoon played a key role behind the scenes in building the
consensus.  The group which drafted the resolution also included
Asian members. 
     At last year's session the General Assembly (GA) had adopted
a relatively mild resolution by consensus, followed in March 1992
by a much stronger and comprehensive resolution, also by
consensus, in the Commission on Human Rights (CHR)[5]. 
     The question at the GA this year was how strong the wording
could be and still achieve consensus.  At the beginning of the
session, there was considerable doubt among diplomats as to
whether the language could be even as strong as last year's, in
spite of the  CHR resolution. This was largely because SLORC had
convinced many countries that the "reforms"  of the past few
months were genuine moves towards democracy and the restoration
of human rights. In particular, the National Convention to be
held in January was presented as part of a democratic process
leading to representative government.  
     One of the main tasks of the delegation from the Burmese
democracy movement was to persuade diplomats otherwise.  SLORC,
however, in a classic example of "friendly fire",  chose this
time to publish Order  No.13/92, which sets out the objectives of
the Convention, one of which is the "participation of the
Tatmadaw  [armed forces] in the leading role of national politics
of the State in future".  This made the delegation's work much
simpler.  Another  factor working against SLORC at the GA was the
anger generated in Muslim countries by the "ethnic cleansing" of
up to 300,000 Burmese Rohingya Muslims who are currently
refugees in Bangladesh.    
     The generals in Rangoon, who seized power in a military
coup, are anxious for whatever "legitimacy" the UN can provide.
They have even argued that UN recognition of Burma gives them
legitimacy, though in fact countries, rather than governments,
are recognized at the UN.  SLORC wanted at all costs to avoid a
defeat at the General Assembly, especially after the disaster in
Geneva earlier in the year.  
     But when Burmese Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw addressed the
General Assembly on the 5th October and announced that SLORC had
carried out substantial reforms and was moving towards democracy,
the opposition was ready with a press conference. This was held
in another room at the UN, where  Dr Sein Win discussed Ohn
Gyaw's statement and said that contrary to the Foreign Minister's
assertion, fighting had not ceased against the Karen and other
minority groups, beyond the normal  slowdown during the rainy
     He also pointed out that the National Convention called by
the SLORC, which was highlighted by Ohn Gyaw as a substantial
move towards democracy, has an agenda set by a SLORC-dominated
steering committee and, according to Order 13/92, is required to
guarantee the continued political dominance of the military. The
National Convention is thus, like Ne Win's 1974 constitution,
simply a way to throw a "constitutional" cloak over brute
military rule.  This is hardly, said Dr Sein Win, what the
Burmese people voted for in May 1990 when they overwhelmingly
elected civilian representatives belonging to the National League
for Democracy.  
     The timing of the "reforms" in Burma,  Ohn Gyaw's speech,
the active UN lobbying by SLORC and their hiring of a Washington 
public relations firm were clearly designed to influence the vote
at the General Assembly. But ultimately no amount of public
relations could convince the International Community that the
"reforms" were genuine: the National Convention was seen as a
device to extend military rule by "constitutional" means [6]; 
reports of fierce fighting in the civil war were coming in daily;
Aung San Suu Kyi and  other political prisoners numbering several
thousand, according to unofficial estimates, are still in
detention;  there are still more than 500,000 Burmese refugees in
neighboring countries, notably almost 300,000 Rohingyas in 
Bangladesh; and the general human rights situation in Burma is
still among the worst in the world. 
     In contrast, New York diplomats were impressed by the very
competent and impressive delegation led by Dr Sein Win, which
presented convincing arguments concerning SLORC's intentions, and
demonstrated that the elected opposition and the ethnic
opposition have come to an understanding on a political solution
to the civil war and restoration of democracy within a federal
State[7]. For its part, SLORC has been unable to bring the civil
war to an end by military means, and is unwilling to seek a
political settlement.  
     The  consensus resolution is a clear indication that the
International Community, including Burma's neighbors, is not
convinced by SLORC's claim that it is in the process of restoring
democracy, improving the human rights situation, and bringing the
44 year civil war to a close.  It also shows how, although they
are not allowed to speak out in their own country,  popular
leaders can be extremely effective at the international level
when they use the UN mechanisms.
Geneva 4 March 1994
Late last night during a session ending at midnight, the UN
Commission on Human Rights was woken up by the sound of the
delegation from the Burmese military government banging on its
desk, apparently in an attempt to stop a speech by Dr Sein Win. 
Dr Sein Win is one of those elected in the Burmese General
Elections of 1990, in which the military-backed party won 0.2% of
the seats, while the National League for Democracy, whose leader
is Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, won 82%. The
military, under the name of SLORC, the State Law and Order
Restoration Council, refused to hand over power and Dr Sein Win,
who is also Aung San Suu Kyi's cousin, was chosen to head a
government in exile. 
The spokeswoman for the SLORC delegation objected that Dr Sein
Win, as the leader of the National Coalition Government of the
Union of Burma, which the military considers an "illegal
organisation", should not be addressing the Commission. The
Chairman of the Commission ruled her out of order, pointing out
that Dr Sein Win was correctly accredited to the Commission and
had every right to speak, and that Myanmar as an observer
delegation was not allowed to interrupt his speech.
Interviewed after the incident, a Western diplomat said that the
SLORC delegation knew the rules perfectly well and that they
interrupted either to intimidate Dr Sein Win or because they were
afraid that if they did not make a public protest of some kind,
the generals back home would be displeased.  
Dr Sein Win, in a strong and tightly-argued speech, addressed the
failure of SLORC to transfer power to the representatives elected
in 1990, and dismissed its National Convention as a "propaganda
exercise aimed at rubber-stamping a constitution that is 
tailor-made for the military to legitimize its hold on power". He
spoke of the severity and extent of the human rights violations
in Burma, including killings, torture, the continued detention of
elected representatives and other political figures, held in
terrible conditions in Burmese prisons, and the lack of freedom
of expression and assembly.
He said of Nobel Peace Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, still under
house arrest, that she is "the key to any comprehensive political
settlement in Burma", and that SLORC has still not responded to
her "proposal for national reconciliation through high-level
dialogue between SLORC and herself".  
He said that last year most human rights violations took place
near the war zones as SLORC builds up its army and prepares for
"total military occupation of ethnic areas". One result has been
massive refugee flows to Thailand. Violations include the wide-
spread forced removals of whole villages, rapes, beatings and
killing of civilians. Dr Sein Win gave special attention to
describing in some detail a number of recent and current 
"development projects" such as the construction of roads, dams
and railways carried out with forced labour.  
Dr Sein Win's speech comes as the Commission begins to discuss
Burma. Already a number of governments and non-governmental
organisations have made highly critical speeches about the human
rights situation there, the failure of SLORC to move towards
restoring democracy, and the need for SLORC to respond to Daw
Aung San Suu Kyi's proposal for high-level talks between herself
and SLORC. This possibility was raised by Australia, and the
Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Professor Yozo Yokota from Japan,
when he introduced his report on 24 February. 
The climax of the Commission's discussion on Burma is next Monday
and Tuesday when other governments, including the United States, 
address the Commission, and the Burma resolution is decided. As
in previous years the French delegation has prepared a draft
resolution for which they hope to obtain a consensus in the
Commission - ie everyone agrees and there is no vote. This year's
resolution is likely to be somewhat stronger than last year's,
but we must wait and see.
                           NOTES (consolidated)
[1] State Law and Order Restoration Council, the military junta
acting as a de facto government in Burma
[2) National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the
provisional government set up at the end of 1990 by elected
representatives, when it became clear that SLORC did not intend
to transfer power to the election victors, but was rather
imprisoning or terrorising them.
[3] "Myanmar" is the name for the country in Burmese, the
language of the Burmans, who comprise about 50% of the
population (figures range from 60% Burman/40% other, to 35%
Burman/65% other. No one really knows). Other ethnic groups in
Burma, with their own languages, regard the change of the
official name as an ethnocratic imposition, part of the policy of
burmanization. They prefer the name "Burma" which though given by
the British colonial power, is regarded as ethnically neutral.
Since the term "Myanmar" has not won wide support outside
official circles, the present text uses "Burma".
[4] A consensus resolution, adopted without a vote, carries more
authority than a voted resolution since the international
community is seen to be undivided on the issue. The resolution on
the "Situation in Myanmar" was adopted by the Third Committee of
the General Assembly on the 4th of December, and ratified by the
Plenary on the 18th December, 1992, which will be the official
date of the resolution.
[5]  One of the elements of that resolution was the appointment
of a Special Rapporteur (a UN investigator) to investigate the
human rights situation in Burma. Governments hate having a
special rapporteur appointed on their country both because it is
the strongest measure the Commission can take, and because the
rapporteur's reports are public.
[6] Burmese diplomats have criticized the resolution for not
praising the National Convention, but some of the people involved
in drafting the resolution wanted to include a paragraph
specifically condemning such a transparent exercise in
constitutional subterfuge. [which was subsequently included in
the 1995 CHR resolution]
[7] In fact, according to one political scientist, the Burmese
opposition (ethnic and elected) probably knows as much about
federal constitutions as most constitutional lawyers, since for
several years they have been working on a federal constitution,
now in its 4th draft, and in the process have hosted a number of
seminars with international constitutional experts.