The making of a people’s tribunal

Chris Cusano, Deputy Director (Venture),
Ashoka Innovators for the Public

In 1996, the Asian Human Rights Commission and Burma Issues, a human rights organization in Thailand, began working on a research and advocacy program investigating the link between hunger and the pervasive military institutions in Burma, or Myanmar. Over the next four years, the People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma involved scores of people in establishing the nexus between Burma’s expanding military and the increasing difficulty with which the average citizen obtained adequate food.

The People’s Tribunal, inspired by the robust people’s tribunal movement in India, introduced a new method and philosophy to the international human rights movement for Burma. It was avowedly apolitical, as any legal or quasi-legal proceeding must be to retain credibility. It was also regional, in the sense that the Tribunal’s members were distinguished members of civil society movements from three of Burma’s neighboring countries, Thailand, India, and Cambodia. With the possible exception of Thailand, which shares in many of the social woes perpetuated by ongoing conflict in Burma, very few ties had been made with social-sector activities in other Asian societies. But most importantly, the Tribunal intended to prompt Burma and its supporters to take seriously the problem of food scarcity and to seek solutions without waiting for the dominant political debates to resolve themselves. By setting out to reveal the institutional and structural causes of food scarcity?taxes, economic policy, agricultural planning, military discipline and conduct?the Tribunal sought to suggest specific remedies on which to focus the efforts of government, civil society, and Burma’s international supporters.

Why food?

Hunger is man’s first and most tenacious enemy, a primal threat to human security that attacks both the individual and society alike. Hunger taunts the stomach and disturbs the mind. Hunger evicts families from their customary homes and sentences them to new lives as refugees. Hunger divides communities into the fed and the unfed, or the overfed and the malnourished.

Hunger distorts the marketplace. It transforms the humblest sack of rice or beans into a delicacy priced beyond the means of an average wallet. It refutes the farmer’s fundamental economic formula: land plus labour plus a modicum of good fortune equals food. Replacing it is a more vicious theorem: labour produces, but neither producing food nor possessing it guarantees that one will eat. For its part, luck abandons the hungry.

Hunger corrodes the machinery of the state. Taxes, flowing ever upward, are paid in paddy. Soldiers receive their wages in paddy, or just as frequently in permission to take what they wish with impunity. Civil servants respond to the call of hunger by appropriating the functions of office to serve their own gnawing pangs?a special fee here, an added service there, the expedition of paperwork, the granting of a permit. It intrudes on the classroom and corrupts the largesse of teachers, transforming a profession of giving into a corps of takers forced by their empty stomachs to accumulate whatever they can from the state and students alike.

Hunger is both highly personal and thoroughly social. It is physiological and economic; emotional and mechanical; simple and complex. Because it is natural, hunger is everywhere a native, capable of appearing in every hamlet and town, but nowhere a citizen to be named, apprehended, and called to account for its crimes and prejudices. Hunger preoccupies its victims with implications?they must find food, take to the road, borrow a cupful of grain, ration their meals, bury their stores, seek a bribe, avoid the taxman, tell lies at the checkpoint, hide their chickens, eat quickly and move on, feed the children first?rather than its origins. And why bother searching for causes, when hunger, our familiar enemy, is simply the absence of food?


Throughout the 1990s more and more people in Burma were having trouble getting the food they need to survive from day to day. This nation of farmers had not stopped growing rice, expanding arable lands, pursuing more advanced agricultural technologies or transporting food from place to place. There was no great drought choking the paddy fields, and no mass infestation of pests that stripped rice from its stalks before the harvest. Still, people weren’t getting enough to eat.

For years reports had attested to widespread abuses by combatants in Burma’s many regional wars and insurgencies. Soldiers were known to destroy and confiscate food, kill livestock, force civilians to leave their farmland, and levy exorbitant and arbitrary fees, “taxes,” and penalties on rural communities payable in both cash and in kind. Moreover, reports of corruption and economic mismanagement were ruining the economies of Burma’s cities and towns, which were generally free from the violence of armed conflict through inflation, wild currency devaluation, shortages of basic goods including food, and a voracious institutional culture of corruption and nepotism. The link between the actions of the state and the people’s difficulty in finding food had been amply documented.

Yet important areas of the topic had not been explored. The policies and practices of government agencies regarding rice-tax, for example, had yet to be approached at the structural, as opposed to anecdotal, level of consideration. When large agricultural projects involving irrigation, population displacements, or multiple cropping failed, many questions remained about how and why these ambitious plans turned fertile ground arid and rendered productive farmers virtually idle. What happens to people when their lands are seized, crops destroyed, food confiscated?

Moreover, a problem so pervasive and universal as hunger presented opportunities to exercise the discipline of human rights documentation and advocacy in ways that were new and untried at the time. With so much documentation amplifying domestic and international calls for democracy and new leadership in Burma, the line between human rights advocacy and political activism was beginning to blur. Maintaining that line and sharpening it were then, and still are, extremely important. Of course there is a natural affinity between decrying abuse by the state and seeking political change. Yet with little hope for “regime change” in sight, and with an ever-worsening set of conditions facing Burmese people, whatever their political views, it made sense to find a central issue that transcended the dominant political question of who should be leading the country. Furthermore, Burma’s conflicts are largely ethnic conflicts, and much of the international discourse on rights in Burma had been phrased in the same ethnic and regional definitions that characterized political opposition movements. The universality of food as a topic of inquiry offered an opportunity to engage human rights in its most human terms, free from political association and therefore exempt from charges of political bias.

The People’s Tribunal

A people’s tribunal gives voice and structure to people concerned about some breakdown in human security. Tribunals?and it should be said here that no two are alike?work on the principles of a legal proceeding. Tribunals gather evidence, clarify charges, apply available laws and norms in considering the case for wrongdoing, and render their results to the public. A people’s tribunal, as the name implies, is not of course legally empowered; its members are acting as citizens, not officials, and their intention is to clarify and enunciate a human rights situation, rather than render a verdict and deliver justice in the conventional sense. For these reasons, the more prominent, public, and professional a tribunal, the better chance it has to convey a lasting message and impact on society.

The People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma had to withdraw itself from public view, however, during its research and evidentiary phases. Ordinarily, a Tribunal consists of a series of public hearings, held in a known and accessible place, at which people with something to say on the issue make statements. The open format requires some degree of tolerance in the society?freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and sufficient lack of repression so that those who speak are not in immediate danger of reprisal. These prerequisite conditions did not exist in Burma. The Tribunal’s organizers were quite certain that public hearings would neither have compiled evidence or rallied civil society organizations around the issue. As an alternative, preliminary information was gathered and presented to the Tribunal by Burmese human rights workers who themselves were acutely aware of the conditions in the country and among whom many had experienced first hand the pangs of hunger. Then, the organizers created a series of opportunities for the Tribunal panel to meet and interview several dozen people. Most were complainants whose direct testimony illustrated in some way the link between militarization and food scarcity. A few were experts who provided historical background and an overview to humanitarian aid in the civil war zones.

At each point, the work of the Tribunal was participatory and highly sensitive to the needs and interests of the Burmese participants. The interest of the Tribunal was not merely in what it could get from persons coming before it, but also in what it could contribute in exchange. Above all, it was in every respect an exercise and demonstration of solidarity with farmers, teachers, health workers and information collectors struggling to overcome the difficult conditions in their country with dignity and self-respect.

Having collected its evidence behind closed doors, the Tribunal welcomed the opportunity to share it publicly. It did this in three ways. The first was to publish the Tribunal’s findings as the Voice of the Hungry Nation report. The second was to organize a media event at which members of the Tribunal panel discussed their findings and the Tribunal process. The third and final step was to present the Tribunal’s findings at the annual session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. In keeping with the aims of the Tribunal, the submission aimed to raise a new issue and engage those who have an interest in the topic but no prior involvement. What the Tribunal found was that there was a ready and interested audience. Just as food is a universal need that cuts through social divisions, food security is a topic that engages economists, diplomats, agricultural planners, humanitarian relief agents, agronomists, and others who have both an interest in the well-being of Burma’s people and an institutional mandate to address food issues.

What was learnt

The Tribunal found food scarcity and militarization to be universal issues that were closely linked in Burma. This determination begs the question of where and how hunger and authority may be linked in other settings. Scarcity of food and an oppressive military-run government are particular aspects of the problem in Burma. Rampant food scarcity and repression do not exist everywhere. Yet all societies grapple with hunger and equitable distribution of food on some level. And all societies struggle with the defining and creating the rule of law as a means of governance and conflict resolution. Therefore the People’s Tribunal on food scarcity and militarization in Burma stands as a good model for persons or organizations interesting in pursuing similar issues, or merely interested in adopting the people’s tribunal approach, elsewhere in Asia or beyond.


Chris Cusano was coordinator of Burma Issues (Thailand), during the time it worked with the Asian Human Rights Commission on the People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma. He is now Deputy Director of the Venture programme with Ashoka Innovators for the Public, and is based in Washington DC.

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