ITUC OnLine – October 23, 2007

Paris-Brussels, 23 October 2007: After the September crackdown on peaceful protests in Burma, the International Trade Unions Confederation (ITUC) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) decided to send a joint international fact-finding mission on the Thai border with Burma to collect first-hand information on the wave of repression. The objective was also to discuss with Burmese pro-democracy and human rights groups about possible international strategies to contribute to the democratization of the country.

The mission, composed of four members from Australia, Belgium, and Thailand, stayed in Bangkok and on the Thai-Burma border from October 13 to 21. The mission did not travel to Rangoon or central Burma as the risks involved for the people interviewed would have been too high.

“We interviewed 13 persons who participated in the protests in Burma and subsequently had to flee to Thailand. They could not live safely anymore in Burma as they had been followed, their homes raided, and their pictures distributed”, said Alison Tate, mission delegate representing ITUC.

“While no accurate and verifiable number of deaths or wounded can be given at this stage, we can assert that the repression was brutal and systematic. Most of the participants witnessed people being shot dead, as well as persons beaten to death”, said Gaëtan Vanloqueren, FIDH mission member and Actions Birmanie spokesperson. It is the first time that the monks have been a direct target of repression. “Arrests are still taking place. The regime is now taking family members in hostage when the searched persons are not at home. SPDC is conducting widespread arbitrary arrests in Rangoon and elsewhere”, he added.

People and organisations met by the FIDH/ITUC mission believe that the SPDC is not genuinely committed to a process of political dialogue. “The regime is trying to save time in order for the media attention to phase down. This is the stalling tactics the regime has played over the years. Than Shwe’s proposal came with unacceptable preconditions placed on Aung San Suu Kyi at a time when large-scale arrests and other repressive measures are still on-going”, said Olivier De Schutter, Secretary General of FIDH. All organizations mentioned that the top priority for a genuine dialogue is the release of all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Ko Ming Ko Naing.

Gambari’s mission cannot be a success without increased pressure from the international community “The international community must establish benchmarks and a timeframe for the coming year, and assess progress every month” said Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ITUC.

“Negative signals to the SPDC need to be combined with signs of encouragement to the Burmese people” added the mission delegates Vanloqueren and Tate. All organizations from the Burmese democratic movement in exile repeated their call for immediate sanctions on trade and investment in the three ‘milkcow’ economic sectors that provide vital support to the military regime (oil and gas, timber and mining, including gems and minerals). While Burma saw a 2000% increase in FDI between 1995 and 2005, 95% of the population lives with less than 1$ day, and 90% with less than 0.65$ a day. “Sanctions hurt the regime and the crony elite, not the people, living from agriculture or the informal economy” mission delegates were told many times. Economic sanctions from the EU, whilst not as impactful as a freezing of Burma-China or Burma-ASEAN trade, are seen by Burmese democrats as a moral issue and a positive signal to the people living inside Burma.

The organisations met by the mission also discuss and consider ways to bring the SPDC generals to account for the crimes they committed. Most interviewed persons thought increased pressure would help, not hurt the existing possibilities of political dialogue.

The root causes of the protests have not been addressed. The fuel price rise, the widespread violations of economic and social rights as well as the severe restrictions on civil liberties, the lack of rule of law and the impunity of the authorities are fueling the desire for change more than ever.

If “this is not over”, as told by a Burmese resident who participated the protests, there is an urgent need for the international community to seize the opportunity. As noted by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, “Dictatorships are not eternal”. She also said, “Please use your liberty to promote ours”. More than ever, these two quotes need to be read together: third countries can play a role to accelerate the transition towards democracy.