Civilian Guise

(Zoya Phan)

LONDON spoke with Zoya Phan about the human rights situation in Burma. Zoya Phan works with the Burma Campaign UK and supports democracy and human rights in Burma from her exile in the United Kingdom. She describes life in Burma in her autobiography "Little Daughter" (London 2009). A German government official recently declared that democracy and the human rights situation in Burma have improved during the last few years. Is the Burmese military really handing over power?

Zoya Phan: Burma is not a democratic country, we still have authoritarian rule through a civilian guise. Since Burma got a new military-backed government, the human rights situation has got worse, especially in ethnic areas. Repressive laws remain in place where hundreds of innocent civilians continue to be kept in prison because of political reasons. There is now some limited political leeway for the mainstream democracy movement such as Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, and others. There have been some civil liberties in the cities. However, the fundamental political problems such as the undemocratic constitution and the repressive laws remain unsolved. So far, there has been no transfer of political power to the people and no national reconciliation, as the reforms are no more than half measure, skin deep and top down. So nothing has really changed...

Zoya Phan: Burma still has one of the worst human rights records in the world, even worse than Iran. Serious human rights violations committed by the Burmese Army that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity actually have increased in the past two years. These include arbitary detention, torture, land confiscation, forced displacement, sexual violence including rape and gang rape, forced labour, obstruction of aid and executions. The Burmese Army continues to engage in war against ethnic minorities, especially in Kachin State and Northern Shan State. In the attacks, the Burmese Army targets civilians using mortar bombs and air raids, forcing more than 100,000 people from their homes. Many of them become refugees in China or Internally Displaced People (IDPs) within the country with very limited access to international humanitarian aid as the government of Burma blocks aid access in many parts of the country. These kinds of human rights abuses are not usually reported in German and other international media. German media have reported that most political prisoners in Burma have been set free. Has the Government really stopped suppressing the opposition?

Zoya Phan: There are three main issues concerning political prisoners. First, the government decided to keep hundreds of political activists in jail; second, those who were freed were released under strict conditions and without any support; third, the repressive laws that enable the arrest of activists remain unchanged, which means those who have been released could be rearrested at any time. For example, take the Unlawful Association Act 17 (1), which the government in Burma uses to ban people from associating with pro-democracy groups including ethnic political groups. In fact, the government in Burma has been using political prisoners as a bargaining chip to relax international pressure. As long as people in Burma are imprisoned because of their belief in freedom and democracy, there won't be any genuine democracy in Burma. The Federal Republic of Germany cooperated closely with the Government of Burma between 1962 and 1988. At this time, the military was already in power in Burma, wasn't it?

Zoya Phan: Germany has been supporting dictatorships in Burma for decades. The first official dictatorship came into power through a military coup in 1962 and there have been a series of dictatorships since then. Anyone who supports human rights and democracy faces arrest, torture, imprisonment and even death. Burma also has a diverse society with different ethnic groups. For decades, ethnic people have been subjected to horrific human rights violations committed by government forces. I am from the Karen ethnic and I was born in Eastern Burma. Twice I was forced to flee from my homeland because of attacks by government troops. We were attacked with mortar bombs and air strikes. I became a refugee in exile like millions of other people from Burma who are victims of the repressive regime. This was 17 years ago and sadly, it hasn't stopped. Germany presents itself as a country which strongly supports human rights. You are fighting for human rights in Burma. Do you feel that the policy of the German government is helping to improve the human rights situation in your country?

Zoya Phan: To our great disappointment, Germany has a long track record within the European Union of opposing international pressure against the government of Burma to promote human rights and democracy. Germany has consistently worked to either attempt to block increased pressure, or to push for relaxing pressure. There is no doubt that international pressure including EU sanctions played an important role in the reforms taking place so far. Germany's attempt to relax international pressure is premature and as a result, it is undermining further reforms and even encouraging continued human rights abuses in Burma. Ceasefire alone without a political situation is like pressing a pause button, not a stop button to the conflict and human rights abuses. Right now, the EU is debating on how to deal with Burma in the future. What are your demands?

Zoya Phan: The reforms in Burma are only half measure while serious human rights abuses continue to be committed by the government army. The EU has set up benchmarks for Burma, which include the unconditional release of all political prisoners and the removal of all restrictions placed on those already released, the opening up of humanitarian access, the end of conflicts in ethnic areas, and addressing the status and improving the welfare of the Rohingyas. Given that none of these four benchmarks have been met, to move from suspending to lifting EU sanctions would be premature, and also undermine the credibility of the European Union. There must be no further relaxation of pressure and normalisation of relations until these serious concerns are addressed. EU sanctions should remain suspended rather than being lifted.