Burma: Darkness at Midnight

As former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali wrote in his Agenda for Peace "There is an obvious connection between democratic practices – such as the rule of law and transparency in decision-making – and the achievement of true peace and security in any new and stable political order."

Due in part to concerted efforts of Non-Governmental Organizations and the refusal of the military to honor the results of the May 1990 elections which they had organized, the UN Commission on Human Rights named a "Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar" in 1992. The first report by Prof. Yozo Yokota was published in February 1993.

Yokota stressed civil and political rights, especially those which under international law may not be limited, curtailed, or infringed upon for "any reason for national emergency, national security, sovereignty, national unity, public order, health, or morality."  The UN has recognized that states of emergency are legitimate, but that there are specific rights such as the prohibition on torture or the prohibition of arbitrary and prolonged detention which cannot be suspended by emergency legislation. Thus the Special Rapporteur strongly urged "the Government of Myanmar to restore full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, to restore the protection of persons belonging to minority groups, notably against discrimination concerning them, especially in the framework of citizenship laws, and to put an end to violations of the right to life and integrity of the human being, the practice of torture, abuses of women, forced labor and enforced disappearances and summary executions."

In the 1993 report Yokota quotes then Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw who set out the government’s aims as "our systematic endeavor towards establishing the democratic system in an atmosphere of peace, tranquility, prosperity, and orderly processes rather than under anarchy, disintegration of the nation, and tragic and senseless destructive acts.  This democratic system we aim to establish will be on foundations that are within the parameters of our history, traditions, and culture."

As the parameters of history, traditions and culture have changed little, the yearly recommendations remain the same through the 2005 report. The structure of the country remains in the same legal void; the constitution has been abolished, and no new constitution has been drafted.

In order to underline Boutros-Ghali’s point of the link between human rights and peace, just as Yokota was writing his 1993 report, the situation on the Bangladesh and Indian frontiers headed up, and both Bangladesh and Burma moved troops into the frontier area.  There have been refugee flows into Thailand from Burma for a long time, and governments have grown used to the situation as one of the regional ‘facts of life’.  The Bangladesh and Indian frontiers had been relatively calm. India is concerned that militant groups such as the Nagas, active for independence or greater autonomy in the northeastern states of India, use Burma as a refuge.  However the Nagas and other ethnic minorities on the Indian frontier are not under the control of the Myanmar junta.

However, shortly after the 1990 elections which showed the low esteem in which the military were held, some of the ruling circle decided to try to create a ‘national Buddhism’ to use the prestige of the Buddhist monks for governmental ends.  This policy created fears of forced conversion to Buddhism, and the Islamic Arakanese -often called Rohingyas -started to flee into Bangladesh.  Some 75,000 Burmese troops moved to the frontier and started refurbishing World War II military airfields.  The Bangladesh army was placed on full alert.  The situation could have escalated adding a religious dimension to an already complicated political-ethnic situation.

One of the instruments of preventive diplomacy that the UN has is the naming by the Secretary General of a ‘Special Envoy’ or a ‘Special Representative’.  A Special Envoy for Myanmar was named. The functions of an envoy are not defined in advance and much will depend on the personal skills and influence of the person named.

Fortunately the ‘national Buddhism’ policy has diminished.  While the government still tries to use Buddhist prestige to build support and has encouraged a Buddhist/Christian split among the Karen ethnic leadership, fears of forced conversion have largely ended.  Most of the Arakanese refugees in Bangladesh have returned to Burma, although many Arakanese wish for cultural and political autonomy.  The Special Envoy in his 14 visits has been successful in calming some of the regional tensions, although below the surface tensions for influence within Burma by India and China are growing.  The Special Envoy has had little impact on human rights and democracy within Burma.

The move for discussion within the UN Security Council is the ‘ace card’ in UN procedures – the most visible expression of concern. Discussion in December 2005 and again in January 2006 is unlikely to lead to an action-oriented resolution.  There may be some recommendations already expressed in the reports of the Commission on Human Rights and highlighted by being repeated by the Security Council.  The current Special Rapporteur, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has expressed his frustration and wrote that "the political transition process had become a long and winding road with no clear end in sight."

The Security Council looks at conflict situations which do not concern the Great Powers and then usually looks away.  A good analysis of Security Council concerns during the 1990s and the types of recommendations and resolutions made is Virgil Hawkins’ The Silence of the UN Security Council.  Yet Security Council recommendations can give added legitimacy to those inside Burma working for democracy and just relations with the ethnic minorities. The Security Council cannot impose reforms upon the military which find their interest in the status quo or who are afraid of any change. There is a Burmese proverb "What is darker than midnight?" Looking out from the current midnight, some light may be on the way.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.


References to the other two Burma articles and the full reference to the book:
Virgil Hawkins The Silence of the UN Security Council: Conflict and Peace Enforcement in the 1990s (Firenze: European Press Academic Publishing 224, 316.)