“They Are Also Human:” An Afternoon with Human Rights Defenders from Burma

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By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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Burma is complicated.  Not only is it also known as Myanmar, the name it was given following a 1988 coup d’état that ushered in two additional decades of military rule, but this Southeast Asian nation is home to a population of over fifty million people belonging to more than one hundred and thirty-five different ethnic groups. Rather than embracing the diversity of its citizens, however, the Burmese government has instead systematically exploited ethnicity for economic gain and facilitated the creation of destructive divisions between peoples in order to further its own agenda.  A particularly vivid example of this is found in the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, which permits the government to “decide whether any ethnic group is national or not,” thus condoning arbitrary discrimination against peoples it would prefer to marginalize.  While the international community has praised the progress Burma has made in recent years, specifically following its 2010 democratic elections, recent violence indicates that the change is a façade.

What does it take for change to become real?

Last month, the Féderation Internationale des Droits Humains/International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) welcomed a delegation of four female human rights defenders from Burma to its New York office in an attempt to answer this very question.  Led by Ms. Debbie Stothard, Secretary-General of FIDH and Coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma), these courageous women came to the United States to advocate for a stronger resolution on Burmese human rights issues.  Ms. Stothard was also accompanied by Ms. Seng Shadan, the 2013-2014 General Secretary of Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT); Ms. Wai Wai Nu, Rohingya activist, law student, former political prisoner, and the founder of Women’s Peace Network-Arakan (WPNA); and Ms. Ah Noh, deputy coordinator of KWAT and an activist from last year’s FIDH delegation.

As an intern with the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, an NGO which, like FIDH, falls under the larger umbrella organization of the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation these women gave while in New York, as well as to spend individual time with three of them later that afternoon.  Like any good student, I came to these interviews with a list of questions.  I soon realized, however, that my questions didn’t really matter.  What mattered was giving these human rights defenders a chance to be heard – something they are denied by their own government.

With that in mind, I decided to stop being the interviewer, and to instead just listen: because sometimes, when the right words cannot be found, it is best to let someone else do the talking.

Rohingya Persecution

“They don’t even recognize that we can exist,” Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya originally from Rakhine State, located in the southwest corner of Burma, told me.  Arrested in 2005 at the age of seventeen due to her family’s attempts to help democratize Burma, Wai Wai proceeded to spend the next seven years of her life in prison before being released in 2012.  Since then, Wai Wai has been living in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, where she dedicates her work to her own people, particularly Rohingya women, who are still in Rakhine.  “I think it is my responsibility to work with those vulnerable women; otherwise there is no other [voice]” for them.

The Rohingya have been “systematically subjected to many human rights abuses for many decades,” which has led to the conclusion by many that the Rohingya are “one of the most persecuted people on earth.”  Examples Wai Wai offered to show that this title was aptly earned include: the requirement to have official permission in order to be married; a 2-child limit for Rohingya families; restrictions on travel and freedom of movement, such as the inability to visit another village without official permission; forced relocation; confiscation of property; torture; extortion; physical and sexual violence; and exclusion from the education system. In addition, the 969 Buddhist National Movement, currently led by a radical monk named U Wirathu, has exacerbated attacks against Muslims, calling for Buddhists to rise up against what Wirathu calls a secret Muslim “master plan” to take over the country and Islamicize it.

Chased from their homes and livelihoods, many Rohingya have become internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and find themselves living in “squalid camps like prison,” starving, lacking access to healthcare, and totally segregated from Rakhine society. This is the goal for the Rohingya’s future as expressed by Burma’s president, Thein Sein.  In 2012, Sein even went so far as to shamelessly explain to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the “best solution” for the Rohingya would be to put them in UN-sanctioned refugee camps and send them to another country.  Sein also asserted that he saw no need to change the 1982 citizenship law, under which the Rohingya are not recognized as being of the Burmese nationality. Without legal representation, property rights, or legitimate protection, the Rohingya, who “have no option other than fleeing” the human rights violations, leading to “voluntary exodus from the land,” are a weak and isolated people.  While Wai Wai notes certain successes in education and information sharing amongst those involved with her organization; however, her work remains difficult in the face of continued government persecution that seeks to silence her along with her people.

Kachin Marginalization: Avoiding a “Shallow Analysis” of Burma’s Ethnic Conflict

While the plight of the Rohingya has justifiably received increased media attention in the past months, this is not the only ethnic group that has experienced increased persecution in Burma.  As Seng Shadan and Ah Noh explained, the government’s economic plans have greatly impacted its relation with the people of Kachin State, whose territory borders that of China.

In particular, these women noted two reasons for the resumption of violence in Kachin State.  In March 2011, the Burmese army broke a seventeen-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) when it added extra security to protect a dam-building project it had recently agreed upon with China.  Despite the Kachin people’s objections, this project was begun, and with it came renewed fighting between the Army of Burma and the KIA.  A second related reason for the discord is the continued lack of self-determination in Kachin State, where the people of Kachin have no political rights, and whose armed group (the KIA) was previously forced to become part of the Army of Burma.

As such, major human rights abuses – including human trafficking, rape, torture, and murder – center on the issue of land, as well as the extraction of natural resources like oil, uranium, gold, and rubies.  Indeed, these resources are exploited by the government, and the people of Kachin are never compensated for them.  This injustice, coupled with the fact that the Kachin are being pushed from their homes, has only led to further instability for these persecuted people.

Members of the international community “all think that Burma is getting better and don’t want to talk about Kachin,” Ah Noh said.  “But for me, I don’t see…that there’s improvement.  I want the international community to pressure [the government] and to monitor it.”  She also emphasized that the Rohingya should be granted full citizenship. Seng Shadan, also a Kachin activist, echoed these sentiments.  Citing several of KWAT’s achievements, she noted that the publication of reports on human rights abuses has caused the Burmese government to be a “little bit more careful” in its actions and to admit that “it has made mistakes” – a break with the past, when the government simply denied all accusations of wrongdoing.  This shift can be attributed to the fact that “true information is presented now,” thanks to the reporting and work of organizations like KWAT.

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Burma is complicated, but the world’s response shouldn’t be. In the end, the progress made by a newly democratic state is inconsequential if it still governs part of its people by undemocratic principles. “Better” is not good enough if certain populations are still excluded from the continuum of recognizable improvement.  Until “better” means better for everyone – including for the Rohingya and the people of Kachin State – there is still work left to do, because, as Wai Wai pointedly reminds us all, “they are also human.”

Michelle Eberhard is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program, concentrating in genocide.  She also interns with the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect.

Special thanks to FIDH for arranging an opportunity to speak with the Burma delegates.

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