While the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Naypyidaw was primarily a business-focused gathering bringing together Burma’s political leaders with regional and global chief executives, human rights did get a look in, with Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty a panelist in a discussion of Burma’s business future.
The panel lineup, featuring the likes of Serge Pun, a well-known Burmese businessman, along with representatives of Dow Chemical and India’s Hindustan Construction, hints at a growing awareness that in Burma’s transitional politics and economy, the human rights-business crossover is particularly acute. Allegations of land grabs—together with jeremiads issued by rights groups warning that corporate exploitation of Burma’s tens of millions of poor could replace military oppression—mean that for those companies coming to Burma to sell consumer goods, set up factories or tap gas, an appreciation of the country’s long history of rights abuses is needed, and could in fact benefit their bottom line.
Salil Shetty and Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, spoke with Irrawaddy reporter Simon Roughneen at the WEF about the state of human rights in Burma and elsewhere in the region, including Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Question: How would you assess the human rights and related reforms that have taken place in Burma so far?
Salil Shetty: Amnesty International has welcomed some important moves from the government recently, such as the release of a significant number of political prisoners, increasing freedom for the media, and a general readiness to engage in a dialogue on the human rights situation. And, of course, the release of iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom Amnesty International campaigned for many years. While it is really important to celebrate the positive developments, we have to be realistic as to the situation on the ground: While prisoners have been released, it is conditional, and there are still around 200 political prisoners—we don’t know the real numbers because it is not in the public domain. There are also other people detained arbitrarily. The other issue we are concerned about is that with many of the people who have protested, be that against some of the development projects or in the context of the Rohingya issue, there has been an excessive use of force and peaceful demonstrations have been broken up, and often the security forces have been involved in this. We are concerned about discrimination against ethnic minorities. Unless every person inside Myanmar feels that their rights are being respected, it will be very difficult to realize the objectives of economic development being discussed at this World Economic Forum.
Q: What did you think of Minister Soe Thane’s comment that the government is considering a federal system of government, which is something that some of the ethnic minority parties and militias have been calling for?
SS: From an Amnesty International perspective, we don’t go by systems or “isms.” It’s the action, what happens on the ground, and we have enough examples of countries where there is a federal system and where there are human rights violations. For us, it’s a question of the criminal justice system, which is really broken in this country. Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of the lack of an independent judiciary. We don’t really have a rule of law in place, we have credible reports not just of arbitrary detention, but of torture.
Q: Can you put a number on those cases of arbitrary detention and/or torture?
SS: I don’t think we can easily put a number in this country, as there isn’t much transparency. And there’s another issue of accountability for past violations. There’s impunity in relation to the military. It’s one thing to have a ceasefire, which is good from a security point of view, but unless you have justice and accountability it’s very difficult to think of a Burma in the future which stays united and is pushing in the proper direction, as there are deep wounds which have to be healed.
Q: You mentioned impunity and accountability for past crimes. Earlier today, Aung San Suu Kyi said she doesn’t want any prosecutions for past crimes, that she seemingly doesn’t want any revenge enacted against those who might have commited or ordered past violations? What did you make of those comments?
SS: Well, she was very careful in how she chose her words—revenge is different from prosecution. She said she doesn’t want revenge, but accountability. It’s a question of justice, and people need to see that, and feel that there is justice.
Q: In terms of your own work, how has the situation changed for Amnesty International working inside Burma, since the Burmese transition, if that’s what it turns out to be, started just over two years ago?
SS: It’s very early days, but, for one, I’m here, and that wasn’t easy before. We’ve had two missions here over that time, and I met several government figures at this meeting and they are keen for us to come and have a dialogue with them.
Q: Have you had much engagement with the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission?
SS: I met several of them and some of them are here. It’s a good thing that there is a national human rights commission, but the fact of the matter is they don’t have the capacity to investigate or the teeth to take up human rights issues. What needs to happen is that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights needs to have a presence here, and the country needs to move rapidly toward aligning its own domestic laws with international legal standards. They [Burma] haven’t signed up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example. I was pleased to hear Aung San Suu Kyi say that in the context of the citizenship issue for the Rohingya, to take the 1982 law, find out how many of them should have been given citizenship in the first place, then take that law and look at how it can be brought in line with international standards.
Q: Looking at the changes in this country in the context of the region, next year Burma will chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for the first time, which is partly a reflection of the changes that have taken place. So how would you rank the human rights situation in Burma, compared with other countries in the Asean region?
SS: Amnesty doesn’t do rankings—that would be a slippery slope. Asean is an interesting animal, it is very economically focused. The countries in Asean, their histories, they are very different, some full-fledged democracies, some not, some partial. But if you take it as an institution, they created the charter, and in 2009 the commission [the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, or AICHR] was created. But like its counterpart here, the commission cannot place complaints, or take action. Accountability for past crimes is weak in many countries. You take Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—there are big issues around freedom of expression, assembly. Vietnam has locked up so many bloggers and activists, who we are campaigning to have released. We are also pushing for the case of Sombat Somphone [a human rights activist who disappeared in Vientiane in December] in Laos, and in the case of Cambodia there are human rights violations around development projects. But overall the tendency in Asean is if there are human rights violations in one country, the others look the other way. It’s a tough neighborhood, and I wouldn’t want to compare Myanmar with any other country.
Q: Have you been able to get access to Vietnam, to carry out official missions there?
Isabelle Arradon: We have been been able to go to Vietnam in February, and that was the first time since 1989, and we are hoping to go to Vietnam again by the end of the year. This is a very new development.
Q: What can you tell us about the conditions for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Vietnam? There has, as you mentioned, been an increase in arrests of writers, pro-democracy campaigners and others in recent months.
IA: As Salil was saying, dozens of human rights defenders are currently in jail, and the rules are very restrictive around freedom of expression, and we are concerned about conditions in detention and access for family and friends to detainees. We issued a statement recently in relation to human rights picnics, where activists have gathered to discuss human rights in cities, but have been harassed by police.
Q: Yes, I saw photos and Vietnamese online accounts of the case of journalist Nguyen Hoang Vi and her family, who were at one of those events and were apparently attacked by police— punched, some teeth knocked out. Nasty-looking way to put a stop to a picnic.
IA: Some were subjected to violence after their arrest and we have been calling for an investigation into the situation and we are calling for the picnics to be allowed to proceed without harassment.
Q: And in the case of Sombat Somphone, any progress in finding him that you know of? Any update on his whereabouts or what happened to him?
IA: We are pushing hard for his release. We will be issuing a report soon. But we have been very disappointed with the investigation so far, it has been inadequate. It is very important that the authorities look again at the video [footage of the night of his abduction shows him being stopped by the police in Vientiane] and that those who took Sombat be found, and that the truth is revealed.
Q: What are your thoughts on the post-election situation in Malaysia? The result has been contested, amid allegations by the opposition that there was cheating, and some people have been arrested on sedition charges around the protests against the results, despite some of the pre-election reforms implemented or promised by the Barisan Nasional government.
IA: We have been issuing statements on the particular arrests under the sedition laws and we have been very clear that the laws do not meet international standards and they should be repealed. There was an announcement last year, as you mention, that the law would be repealed, so it is worrying now that the laws are being used to suppress free speech again.
Q: How many people are in jail or have been charged under lese-majeste in Thailand? Are they categorized as political prisoners or prisoners of conscience if they are detained under lese-majeste or associated aspects of Thailand’s computer crimes law?
IA: Amnesty International has expressed a number of concerns with lese-majeste laws—they don’t meet international human rights standards. Some of them are prisoners of conscience, such as Somyot Prueksakasemsuk [a magazine editor and labor activist who was sentenced to 11 years jail for lese-majeste in January], and we have been campaigning actively for their immediate and unconditional release. Another aspect we are concerned about is the denial of bail to those charged under lese-majeste. It is very important that all those facing charges are free pending investigation and trial. It is very hard to say the exact number detained under the lese-majeste laws, I believe it is tens of people. We are not able to say at the moment how many of those are prisoners of conscience. There are other laws such as the Computer Crime Act that we are concerned about and recently the use of criminal defamation suits as well.
SS: We will be meeting the Thai prime minister and will raise several of these issues and also issues of rights violations in the conflict in the south of Thailand. And just to go back to the region, it’s not overall a pretty picture, there are violations in most countries. For the region, freedom of expression, reform of the criminal justice systems and accountability for past violations are the three key issues for us. There are land issues, issues of women’s rights are other important issues as well that come up across the region in terms of human rights.