The content in this page ("Beyond ‘Burmese’ Sovereignty" by Sutthida Malikaew) is not produced by Prachatai staff. Prachatai merely provides a platform, and the opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of Prachatai.

Beyond ‘Burmese’ Sovereignty

Tens of Thousands of Buddhist monks as well as civilians gathered in Rangoon and other provinces in Burma recently, in demonbstrations that ended with violent deaths and arrests of protestors by the military government. This is not the first time that we have heard such reports from Burma. Though a similar event happened almost two decades ago, people have been suffering from its impact until now. However, one thing that is different from what happened in 1988 is that the violent suppression in 2007 has been witnessed throughout the world. The Burmese government cannot hide as it did last time.

The events in Burma prove how the human rights of the Burmese people are violated by their own government. It is so sad to see what happens in a country where the rulers also claim that they are Buddhist. The Prime Minister of Burma recently passed away and the funeral ceremony was organized as a Buddhist ceremony. But monks, who should be respected as an important part of Buddhism with the responsibility of maintaining the religion, were killed and defrocked because they came out to call for the government to reconsider its policy. The initial motivation of the monks was not concerned with politics but with policies that prevent people from being able to make a living.

Even if the protest of the monks was related to the politics, the government still has no right to take their lives.

As mentioned, this is not the first time but this time more people in world have witnessed the events through different kinds of media. Let’s trace back to what has happened since 1988 so that we can consider that whether it is the time for the international community to intervene in this issue and whether the Burmese government still has the right to claim for national sovereignty for violating the rights of its people or not.

The last large-scale protests for democracy in Burma were in 1988. Not many people knew much about what happened inside the country until a large number of people fled to neighbouring countries. It is estimated 3,000 unarmed people were massacred and some thousands were put in jail; and they are still in jail today.

Since the 1988, the country has been under martial law, ruled by a dictatorship, and Burmese citizens do not enjoy freedom of expression and assembly or guarantees of due process. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in prison, and hundreds or more people are arrested every year. Torture and ill treatment of political prisoners is the rule. The authorities continue to persecute minorities, and there are many reports of extra-judicial executions, torture and forced labour and displacement.

Of course, the junta government might argue that there are reasons to let such things happen in the country. They might argue that the country needs contributions from its people. Hence it is necessary to have volunteer labour and if families not able to contribute labour can contribute by tax. “Is there anything wrong with this?” they might ask.

In the suppression of ethnic groups, national reconciliation is achieved. And now the suppression of protests is needed for state peace and order and for national security. The Burmese government might perceive these actions as normal practice. Nothing seems to be wrong according to national law.

It is true that nothing seems wrong under national law, but in fact no law that reaches human rights standards has been enacted by the military leaders since they took over the country. The laws they promulgate seem to depend on what the government wants to have or to exploit.

Labour is indeed needed for developing the country and the military leaders argue that "voluntary labour" is donated with the full consent of civilians for the good of the nation. But it is widely known that the labour for all public work projects in the country is forced labour. Where in the world are volunteer workers chained up? Many have to escape to neighbouring countries. Some of them have to live without dignity in another country because they have no choice. They have to survive. It is the government that pushes them into this situation.

The use of labour is right but forced labour is against human rights. Under Article 1 of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention (No 29) concerning Forced Labour 1930, parties to the Convention undertake to suppress the use of forced labour. Burma ratified this convention in 1955. Also, under Article 1 of the Convention (No 105) concerning the Abolition of Forced Labour 1957, parties to the Convention undertake to suppress and not to make use of forced labour as a means, inter alia, of punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social or economic system. But Burma’s rulers do not want to bother with this because they might say “they are not the persons who ratified those treaties”

There is no benefit in using the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to talk about Burma because the current rulers seems to care nothing about it and have already violated almost every article, starting from the first paragraph of the preamble: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. The Burmese government has never wanted to hear this.

It fails to practice Article 1; All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

And it will never comprehend article 2; Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The entire document seems not to be seen as a guideline for upholding human rights in the country, even though Burma has been a member of the United Nations since 1948. And it may also be useless to remind the Burmese government that it has totally failed to practice the only two UN treaties that it has ratified: the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Nonetheless, it is important here to highlight once again the importance of drawing world attention to the violations of the rights of children and women despite government ratification of the conventions. Let the world consider whether the events in Burma are just the domestic affairs where other countries should not intervene, or in fact whether other countries just do not want to intervene? The international community is also called to consider whether countries should deal with this issue by safeguarding their national interest or saving Burmese lives.

There are no reports yet about how many children have been killed or injured in the recent protests but children rights have been severely abused since the junta took control of the country. Violations range from forced child labour to child soldiers. Child labour seems to be very common and there is no legal body in the country responsible for this issue. Children are forced to work in very risky jobs or without any protection. It is even worse to learn that 20% of Burma’s soldiers are children.

It is reported by Human Rights Watch that an estimated 70, 000 of 350,000-400,000 soldiers are children. It is found that recruiters for the Burmese army frequently uses coercion and deception to recruit children in order to fulfil recruitment quotas issued by the government. Children have been deployed to fight against armed ethnic groups. Army recruiters, according Human Rights Watch, often apprehend boys at train and bus stations, markets and public place using threats, intimidation and violence to force them into the armed forces and brutally punish them if they try to escape.

To recruit child soldiers is not only a violation of the CRC, but even Burmese national law prohibits the recruitment of children under the age of 18 into the armed forces. A report by Human Rights Watch in 2002 found force recruitment of boys as young as 11. The government is still using child soldiers.

Women’s lives are also difficult under the junta. Conflicts and so-called “national development” programmes have created at least 2 million internally displaced persons. They were forced to migrate or relocate. According to the Network of Migrant and Refugee Women from Burma, ethnic women have been systematically raped by the military. A 2002 report by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women's Action Network, Licence to Rape, confirmed the facts. The report details 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women, committed by Burmese army troops in Shan State.

The junta seems to ignore the only two treaties that bind Burma to the international community. Are the violations of women’s rights under CEDAW and child rights under CRC reasonable grounds for international society to intervene to protect these rights in Burma?

The practice of the military rulers in claiming supremacy over national sovereignty while declining to govern in accordance with international human rights standards seems to be normal for many governments. But what needs to be considered very carefully is whether any government can violate the human rights of its citizens under the pretext of calling it an internal matter. Is it the right of the government to take the lives of its citizens who have different political opinions and beliefs?

In fact, when judging claims of state sovereignty, it is also necessary to think of sovereignty as responsibility. According to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, sovereignty as responsibility, in a way that is being recognized in state practice, has a threefold significance in state practice: First, it implies that state authorities are responsible for the function of protecting the safety and lives of citizen and promotion of their welfare; secondly, it suggests that national political authorities are responsible to the citizens internally and to internationally through the UN; and thirdly, agents of state are responsible for their actions.

There is nothing wrong with intervention in this case if we consider the “right to humanitarian intervention” by referring to the principle of ‘the responsibility to protect’ of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. This gives the international community the responsibility firstly to protect the community from mass killing, women from systematic rape and children from starvation, and secondly, if the state is unable or unwilling to fulfil responsibility or is itself a perpetrator to act in place of government, and thirdly prevent and rebuild.

If to protect its population under international human rights standards is not something that the Burmese government wants to do, should we convince the government that the basic rights of human beings, the rights that all humans should have simply because they are human, should not be violated or ignored by the government?

Basic rights and freedoms, to which all humans are entitled, include the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law. These basic human rights are universal and inalienable. In fact, it is nothing new in the universal declaration on human rights because most rights mentioned there are basic rights, which all human being should enjoy.

To remind the government of Burma of political rights and government’s responsibilities, we might need to refer back John Locke (1632-1704)’s ‘Second Treatise and the State of Nature’. Locke states: “Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to political power of another without his own consent”

Locke insists that all government is limited in its powers and exists only by the consent of the governed. And Locke built this theory on the premise “All men are born free”.

Therefore, considering human rights discourse by using either international instruments of the world today or back to the concept of rights in the 17th century, the Burmese government, in the murder, torture or suffering of its citizens, is severely violating rights of human beings. The junta government has no right to violate any right of the people without consent. All citizens have the right to protest or at least express their disagreement with the government by any means, because they are born free, not as subject of the government.

In short, if human rights are considered rights that are held simply by being human; and they belong to every individual, they cannot be given or withdrawn by any ruler or legal system. This is a universal principle. It is not just an affair inside Burma’s borders. Therefore, the junta government has no right to claim national sovereignty to take the lives of the protesters because they have different political opinions and it is not the government’s right to violate human rights of the population within their borders. To this end, every government might need to consider what Brian Orend, a Canadian professor of ethics said in ‘Human Rights: Concept and Context’: “The violation of human rights is a vicious and ugly phenomenon indeed; and it is something we have overriding reasons to resist, and ultimately remedy”