Asian Human Rights Commission
The People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma (Myanmar) was created as a public exercise in discovering and assessing evidence of human rights abuses in Burma. Initiated in 1996 through conversations between the Asian Human Rights Commission and the human rights organization Burma Issues, the Tribunal belonged to the people’s movement for social change in Burma. It gave victims of injustice the opportunity to reveal their circumstances regardless of the lack of government acknowledgement. Its contribution was to investigate and explain in an orderly and credible way which human rights were denied, how and why.
The Tribunal involved human rights workers, experts, and citizens of Burma from at least eight ethnic groups, ten divisions and states, and a variety of socio-economic paths. Three respected figures in Asia’s human rights movement sat on the panel: Justice H Suresh of the Bombay High Court (retired); Professor Mark Tamthai, Director of the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand; and, Dr Lao Mong Hay, Executive Director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.
The Tribunal examined food scarcity and militarization, two social trends greatly affecting the people of Burma. The Tribunal sought to discern whether the right to food had been denied to people in Burma, and if so, whether this denial stemmed from the militarization of Burmese society.
The Tribunal noted that, “The State’s obligation to protect the right to food goes beyond providing a morsel of food for every hungry mouth.” Certain positive obligations must be performed, it observed, including protecting freedom of choice of livelihood, protecting the people’s resource base from encroachers, assisting those unable to meet their own food needs and eliminating discriminations hampering access to food. It added that states also must not “indulge in any act of commission or omission which will endanger people’s capacity to produce food and have access to it”. The Tribunal argued that basic economic rights should supersede politics, that the right to food could not be compromised. Finally, although the government in Burma has not signed on to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Tribunal noted that it is still obliged to respect human rights in accordance with this treaty.
The Tribunal relied on a definition of militarization that suggested a society and government dominated by military values, ideology, and patterns of behaviour. This definition accounts not only for the role of the army itself but also the authoritarianism, oppression, and violence that had become a routine part of government business in Burma.
After the Tribunal was conceived in 1996, field workers associated with Burma Issues began investigating hunger in Burma. These persons collected information directed towards establishing the relationship between manifest food scarcity and the militarization of society. Aware that much had already been written on Burma, original research for the Tribunal sought quality information rather than large quantities of insubstantial material. Existing literature was also an important secondary source. Case studies and supporting information was focused, comprehensive and well documented, and supported by pertinent analysis.
In January 1999, the voluminous First Submission to the People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma was completed and forwarded to each tribunal member prior to the initial panel meeting. The First Submission began with background information before moving to detailed testimonies and field reports
of hunger and militarization. It was supported by a package of ancillary materials from other sources.
In April 1999, the panel of the People’s Tribunal convened in Thailand to receive oral testimonies on the relationship between food scarcity and militarization in Burma. Twenty-six witnesses gave depositions, providing a range of testimonies regarding the historical and contemporary links between the right to food and militarization there. The panel adjourned to consider evidence individually and resumed discussions at a meeting held in May, during which the panelists presented their initial conclusions.
On 23 May 1999, the panel notified the government of Burma about the Tribunal’s activities and requested that it provide evidentiary material to support its point of view before the end of June 1999. The government, however, did not officially reply. The panel then handed its findings to the Asian Human Rights Commission, which published the influential Voice of the Hungry Nation report in October 1999. The report was also made available on the Tribunal website (www.hrschool.org/tribunal ).
The Tribunal reviewed evidence and case studies from persons of all walks of life and most major administrative divisions of Burma. The source of hunger, the Tribunal concluded, was
Social rather than natural, rooted in the structure and actions of the state rather than vagaries of land and climate. Our findings show that among state institutions, the people of Burma overwhelmingly accuse the military of denying their right to food.
Prior to the work of the People’s Tribunal, human rights groups working on Burma tended to treat violations of the right to food as a small part of their work. Destruction of food by soldiers, shortages of food among displaced populations and other abuses were dutifully recorded but not made the subject of serious discussion. At the international level, around the time the Tribunal was just beginning its work, the right to food was starting to receive increased attention as a distinct and significant human right, particularly through the 1996 World Food Summit.
The Tribunal’s contribution was twofold: it brought the right to food to the attention of the human rights movement of Burma; and, it brought the specific conditions of food scarcity in Burma to the attention of the international community.
The work of the Tribunal broadened the often narrow, partisan or politically motivated approach that many groups have taken on human rights in Burma. Hunger, it was found, has cut its way across communities in Burma without regard to religion, ethnicity, gender, affiliation, or otherwise. Just as the right to food is a universal right, in Burma its denial is universally felt.
Internationally, many agencies began to approach food scarcity in Burma as a distinct problem deserving greater attention. These included non-governmental organizations, which began to report and work on food deprivation and livelihood issues with much greater awareness of the right to food. The Special Rapporteur on Myanmar also highlighted the Voice of the Hungry Nation, and devoted a section of his report to food security. The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, a mandate established in 2000, has also raised his concerns with regards to Burma in each of his three reports to date, and has written to the government in conjunction with the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, but has reportedly received no reply.
Finally, the government of Burma has in recent years propagated more material arguing that the food needs of all its citizens are being satisfied. Growing international attention has obliged it to address this issue in the United Nations, and at home it is using the domestic media to paint a picture of a food-sufficient nation. In so doing, it is by implication acknowledging the problem, although asserting that it does not exist. This intransigence on the part of the government is a cause for concern that has contributed to the Asian Human Rights Commission’s ongoing attention to hunger in Burma and its causes.