MYANMAR: The limitations of the global human rights movement – a case study from Myanmar

May 26, 2010

Language(s): English only

Fourteenth session, Agenda Item 4, General Debate

A written statement submitted by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a non-governmental organisation with general consultative status

MYANMAR: The limitations of the global human rights movement – a case study from Myanmar

1. The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) has worked intimately on a range of grave human rights issues and cases from across its region over many years. From its accumulated experience, the ALRC is aware that under some circumstances and in some places, conventional approaches and interventions from the global human rights movement can have excellent effects. But it is equally aware that there are more cases where interventions have brought little or no effects. In this written submission, the ALRC wishes to drawn attention to one such instance of the difficulties associated with effective intervention into human rights problems in the region, through a case study from Myanmar.

2. In April 2010 the sister organization of the ALRC, the Asian Human Rights Commission, wrote to the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the topic of “A human rights defender targeted by medical doctors”. The Commission explained that it had received a copy of a letter from Myanmar, which had also been copied to the High Commissioner. The letter was dated 23 March 2010 and was from Ma Sandar, and her husband, Zaw Min Htun. It was addressed to Senior General Than Shwe, chairman of the State Peace and Development Council of Myanmar; U Aung Toe, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Myanmar; and, the minister for health, with copies to other senior officials.

3. Ma Sandar is a human rights defender who was imprisoned from August 2008 to September 2009 because she made a complaint of corruption against authorities in Twante Township, Yangon, where she and her husband reside. She was released on completing her sentence. Less than two months later, she was subjected, together with her husband, to new fabricated criminal charges. It is that case which was the subject of the letter. The contents of the letter were, briefly, as follows:

a. On 12 November 2009 as a result of a vehicle accident a young woman named Ma La Yeit Choe (alias Ma Thida Win) went to the Twente Township Hospital to obtain a medical certificate for an injury. At that time there was no doctor present. She waited for two hours before Dr. Daw Hsint Hsint Thi attended to her. The doctor said that she had to do an x-ray. But because there was no electricity supply, they would have to use a generator. The cost of using the generator would be 10,000 Kyat and for medicine, 6000 Kyat; in total about USD16. The doctor said that if the accident victim and family would not pay, they could seek treatment elsewhere, and thereafter allegedly rudely ejected them from the premises.

b. As the township hospital is a public service, the family was unhappy with how they were treated and went to lodge a complaint at the local police station, which was recorded by Sub-inspector Hlaing Lin Htun, and in which they said that the doctor had failed to perform her duties. They went to the general hospital for treatment.

c. According to the doctor, when Ma Sandar and her husband went to see the accident victim at the hospital, they abused her and threatened her and her staff. Through the township health department head, Dr. U Kyu Khaing, she opened a criminal case against Ma Sandar and Zaw Min Htun (Penal Code, sections 353/506; obscenity and criminal intimidation, each punishable with up to two years’ imprisonment).

d. Although the case is a minor one, it has since been investigated by high-ranked council officials, the Bureau of Special Investigation–which is supposed to be concerned with cases of corruption, not ordinary criminal inquiries–and the Criminal Investigation Department, which also is designated for serious crimes. Ma Sandar and her husband emphatically deny the charges. Despite a lack of prima facie evidence with which to open a case, Township Judge U Aye Ko Ko allowed the matter to go to trial. Regrettably but predictably, on 7 May 2010 both Ma Sandar and her husband were convicted and sentenced to one year and one-and-a-half years of imprisonment respectively.

4. The ALRC, aside from taking up this case of a human rights defender as a matter of concern for her personal circumstances is also interested in raising her case so as to point to a couple of serious difficulties for the global human rights movement in addressing the human rights situation in Myanmar, and in other countries with similar conditions, both in Asia and in other parts of the world, as follows:

a. The first serious difficulty is one of understanding. Often, cases concerning human rights defenders are treated as some sort of exceptional event, arising from dramatic moments like protest actions or high-profile political stands. But this case shows how the authorities in Myanmar can make something out of anything. Even the most trivial occurrence, an argument over treatment for a small injury at a hospital, is an excuse and an opportunity for them to get back at a perceived troublemaker. In the past, petty issues such as the alleged theft of a duck or purported failure to renew a license to work as a private tutor have similarly resulted in the imprisonment of rights defenders in Myanmar.

b. The difficulty of understanding is also apparent in this case when looking at the persons involved. Usually when we think about cases where human rights defenders are targeted, the perpetrators who come to mind are soldiers, police, mafia figures or others acting on behalf of people like these. But in Myanmar where five decades of military dictatorship have completely poisoned institutions and social life, they are just as likely to be medical doctors or other professionals acting as proxies for government authorities. In fact, with the emergence of a new parliament under military control in the next year or so, this aspect of human rights abuse, and attacks on human rights defenders in Myanmar, is likely to become more pronounced, making understanding of the real actors and issues even more difficult for people outside the country than it already is.

c. The second difficulty is what to do. Of course, we can bring as much pressure to bear on the authorities in Myanmar from outside as possible. Experience has shown that concerted efforts from United Nations agencies, governments abroad, human rights groups, the media and others can have an effect in some instances, for which everyone is grateful. Indeed, in this case it is obviously the hope of Ma Sandar and her husband, in sending a copy of their letter to the High Commissioner, that she personally or the staff of her office would take up the case with the Government of Myanmar.

d. But no matter the amount of pressure, the systemic obstacles to effective intervention into human rights cases in Myanmar remain. Among these, the single most pronounced is the absence of an independent judiciary; a fact adverted to in the other written statement that the ALRC has submitted on Myanmar to this session of the Council. Unfortunately, it is no exaggeration to say that there is no judiciary in Myanmar at all, although there are persons called judges and buildings called courts. Neither these persons nor their institutions function in any way like a judiciary, either in terms of international standards or even in terms of the domestic law, which authorities in Myanmar honour more in breach than in compliance.

e. Under these circumstances, it is pointless to make statements calling for a trial to be fair or for an independent inquiry into some violation of rights, because no institutions exist for these things to happen. That there is no prospect of fair inquiry or trial in this case and hundreds of others like it that the ALRC has studied is obvious from the letter of Ma Sandar itself. The accused have been forced to appeal to the top army officer in the country, as head of the ruling council, for some sort of relief. There is nowhere else for them to go. In this way, requests for redress of wrongs committed are reduced to feudal acts, where citizens who should have rights as human beings are obliged to supplicate some high up person to beg for mercy.

5. The sad fact is that in the 21st-century, conditions for victims of rights abuse in Myanmar are little different than they were three or four hundred years ago. The availability of computers and email notwithstanding, profound inequality between rulers and ruled underpins all relations and transactions between state and society. This same notion of inequality, and all its anti-human rights and anti-democratic implications, has been woven into the fabric of the 2008 Constitution and the measures being introduced to see a proxy semi-civilian parliament introduced sometime in the not too distant future.

6. On top of that sad fact is the added fact that the global human rights movement has been unable to do anything much about it. Myanmar is an example, together with Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and some other countries in the Asian region, of how a country that is a relatively small player in global affairs is able to make it difficult, even nigh impossible, for the global human rights community to contribute to meaningful change of any sort in its domestic conditions. This fact is now increasingly recognized by people in Myanmar themselves, who up to 2007 had still held strong hopes that a combination of domestic activism and international intervention could bring about change, but who saw with the failed nationwide monk-led uprising of that year and during the massive cyclone that hit them in the next that the United Nations and its apparatus was unable to have any discernible lasting influence on their lives or the future direction of their country.

7. Where does that leave us as partners and participants in the global human rights movement? What further role can United Nations human rights agencies play? There are no easy answers to these questions. Nor is the Asian Legal Resource Centre putting them forward as a rhetorical critique of the global human rights movement’s work, but rather as a genuine response to our own difficulties in addressing problems that we encounter in our work daily, in order to open up some more honest dialogue with partners and peers about what we can do not only to stem the incidence of human rights abuse on a case-by-case basis but also to go more deeply into the institutional dysfunctions that enable it, so that these too can be more fully understood and more effectively tackled in the future. We know that not only our organization but many other groups and individuals are asking the same questions and struggling with the same problems of how to make their work more effective. The global human rights movement needs to draw on these rich collective experiences and engage in greater dialogue in order to develop new and more incisive strategies and methods to remain vital and relevant in our rapidly changing world.

About ALRC

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) works towards the radical rethinking & fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in Asia, to ensure relief and redress for victims of human rights violations, as per Common Article 2 of the International Conventions. Sister organisation to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the ALRC is based in Hong Kong & holds general consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the United Nations.

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