In Defence of Human Rights: Interview With Salai Bawi Lian Mang
May 2004 – Chin National Journal: Thank you for sparing your time. We would like to interview you regarding Chin Human Rights Organization.
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: It is my pleasure.
Chin National Journal: When did you founded the Chin Human Rights Organization CHRO, what is the objective of CHRO, and where do you base?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) was founded in the early 1995 by a group of Chin on the India-Burma-Bangladesh border. The primary aim of the CHRO was to inform the world about human rights violations committed by the Burmese military regime against the Chin people in Burma. Later on, we expanded the scope of our works slowly. At present the aims and objectives of the CHRO are:
• To promote human rights and democratic principle among the Chin people;
• To empower the people, especially the victims of human rights violations, who have been suffering rampant human rights violations under the Burmese military regime;
• To provide accurate and reliable information about the human rights situation in Chinland and western Burma to the international community.
The CHRO is registered as not for profit organization in Canada, and the CHRO main office is in Ottawa, Canada. We also have small liaison offices on the India-Burma border and the Burma-Bangladesh border.
Chin National Journal: Can you please share us how do you functions CHRO’s works inside of the country and to international community?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: There are many things that we wanted to implement both inside and outside of the country in accordance with the aims and objective of CHRO. Generally speaking, the majority of the Chin people, especially those who are in the rural areas, do not understand what “human rights” means. They simply think that the government has the right to do whatever they want to citizens, and they simply regard themselves as subject to the government. We try to educate the people about their basic rights and responsibilities as citizens. However, the work we have been able to do inside the country is very limited due to harsh retaliation from the Burmese army against the civilians who have cooperated with us. For example, in the year 2000 June, one of CHRO field monitors, Mr. Zothang, was caught while he was interviewing two villagers who were victims of human rights violations, and he was killed along with the two villagers on the spot. This kind of situation and the remoteness of the region have made the country less accessible than we would wish.
What we have been able to do is train a small group of people as human rights monitors in the border area. The trainings are very basic. We teach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations human rights system, the International Bill of Human Rights such as UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR, CEDAW and how to collect news and information, and these field monitors travel village to village, collecting news and information and talking to the people about the very limited knowledge they have learned about human rights.
There are quite a number of issues we have been handling in the field of international community. One of the critical issues that we are dealing now is protection of refugees, especially in Mizoram state of India, as there are about 50,000 Chin and other refugees are taking refuge in Mizoram state alone. And there are about 7 to 8 thousands Chin refugees in Malaysia. These refugees are not recognized by the host country as refugees, and the UNHCR can only provide very limited protection for those who are in Delhi and in Kuala Lumpur and thus, their security is very vulnerable, and their humanitarian needs are vital.
The other issues we are doing in the international community include lobbying and advocacy among some governments, nongovernmental institutions, and the UN. We also publish a human rights newsletter, called Rhododendron, once every two months, and send it to international institutions, researchers, human rights organizations, etc.
Chin National Journal: Can you please tell us how do you bring human rights situation in Chinland to the international community, and was there any positive result by doing so?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: We have been participating time to time in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the UN Working Groups on Indigenous Populations, and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous peoples. This is how we can make oral interventions at the UN floor in front of the international community, including governments and nongovernmental organizations.
Besides the lobby mission at the UN, we meet, from time to time, with some government agencies such as the US Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; the US Department of State Bureau for Migration, Population and Refugees; the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade of Canada, and some law makers from the US and England. For example, we made a statement at the US joint congressional hearing in October 2003.
In the NGO level, we have good connection with, International Labor Organization (ILO), Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW), US Committee for Refugees (USCR), Refugees international (RI), the US-based Christian Freedom International (CFI), London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and World Council of Churches (WCC) etc..
Regarding your question about “was there any positive result”, I would say yes.
Even though Burma is still under the most repressive military regime, at least the international community (those who are interested in Burma related issues) aware of what is happening in Burma, even in the most isolated region of Chin state and western part of Burma. Before 1995, the international community knew nothing or very little about what was going on in that region. It was not because there were no human rights violations, but because of lack of information. In fact, the Chin people were suffering almost the same level of human rights violations as in other war zones in Burma.
If we look at the UN human rights reports on Burma, the US Department of State’s annual report on human rights and international religious freedom reports on Burma have cited the work of CHRO. And you know that Burma was expelled from the International Labor Organization, and the ILO has cited the works of CHRO in their reports. And the AI, HRW, RI and USRC are sensitive enough to voice their concerns in order to protect Chin and other refugees in India and other places whenever the refugees are in danger and whenever we call international action. It is a great encouragement for the victims when they are not forgotten by the international community.
Chin National Journal: How do you collect news and information from inside Burma?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: Ahh!, that is a very risky question.
As I have mentioned before, it is very risky and dangerous to be human rights field monitor and information provider in Burma, where owning a fax machine without registration can be deadly and listening the radio –Voice of America and British Broadcasting Corporation VOA and BBC — is illegal.
CHRO field workers risk their lives traveling on foot, village to village, collecting human rights news. Some people are brave enough to cooperate and report human rights violations in their areas even though they are truly aware that doing so could be deadly or cause them long term imprisonment and torture. Basically this is how we collect news and information from inside the country, and I would say that we are still using a very primitive method of information collection inside the country.
Chin National Journal: I aware that CHRO is advocating for human rights. What is your view, in human rights perspective, on opposition parties, especially those who are engaged in armed struggle, in Burma?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: Well, in Burma every right mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the very fundamental human right including civil and political rights such as the right to “ form their own government by the people” is violated by the military regime.
If we look at the political parties that won the 1990 general election in Burma, they have been badly treated by the military regime State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Most of the smaller political parties are declared illegal organizations, and we all know how the SPDC has terribly treated the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and its leaders. Several elected members of parliament have died in jail. Around 30 MP’s are serving long-term jail sentences, along with more than one thousand political prisoners at present. Many more MPs are fleeing the country and continue the struggle to restore democracy and human rights in the country. In fact, these people are legitimate representatives who have the right to form government in accordance with the will of the people of Burma. The SPDC hijacks the first generation rights, “civil and political rights” at gunpoint.
Regarding the opposition ethnic armed groups in Burma, I sincerely believe that they are taking up arms to protect themselves and to survive as a people in their own land. As you know, the right to life is one of the fundamental human rights and these people have every right to protect themselves to survive as a people.
Chin National Journal: Some people say that human rights situation in Burma is worsen because of the existence of opposition armed groups. What would be your response to that statement?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: Well, in my opinion, that statement is not relevant.
By saying that, I do not mean the ethnic armed opposition groups do not violate any human rights. It is an undeniable fact that whenever there is war, there are casualties, and both sides of the parties involved in the wars have violated human rights in some fashion. And in Burma, there is war. Civil wars. And civilians are suffering a lot for those goddamn civil wars!
If we look at the killings of thousands of unarmed peaceful demonstrators in the universities campuses in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, we know that the Burmese army does not hesitate to kill unarmed students in mass. They eventually bombed the Rangoon University student union building, which had nothing to do with the armed movements. They just closed universities and colleges for about 8 years within the past 15 years because the SPDC knew that the students do not approve of the military regime, and the students want to change the country into democratic system. And if we look at the most recent incidents in May 2003, the Burmese military regime ambushed and tried to assassinate unarmed democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Would it be reasonable that all these deplorable human rights violations occurred because of the armed ethnic movement?
Let’s take a look at the nature of the civil wars in Burma. The opposition armed ethnic groups never wage offensive wars. In spite of all their sufferings, the armed ethnic groups consistently demand reconciliation and dialogue with the military regime. They want to end this horrible civil war. They demand peaceful coexistence as a people. However, it is the Burmese military regime that denies political dialogue and ignores the existence of non-Burman ethic groups as a people. I sincerely believe that the non-Burman ethnic groups are taking up arms as a last resort for their survival. After all other peaceful means to negotiate with the successive Burmese authority have failed, and so there is no other way but to take arms to protect themselves in order to survive as a people.
It is the Burmese military regime that invaded the land of the ethnic groups, destroyed the crops, burned the villages, raped the ethnic women, enslaved the entire people, and hunted them like wild animals. That is why there are more than 200,000 refugees in Thailand, and of this, most of them are non-Burman ethnic groups, and more than 50,000 refugees in India. Again, most of these refuges in India are ethnic Chin. It is estimated that over a million people, most of them non-Burman ethic groups, are internally displaced.
In fact, it is the chauvinistic Burmese military regime’s policy which is to preserve “Amho, Batha, Tathana.” That means: Amyo= only Burman as a race, Batha= only the Burmese language and Tathana=only Buddhism as religion. Because of this policy, the Burmese military regime is systematically assimilating non-Burman ethnic groups into mainstream Burman culture, and that is the root cause of the horrible human rights situation in the country.
Chin National Journal: In the Chin internet egroups, the CHRO was accused of the shadow organization of Chin National Front (CNF) and they even put some of CHRO members names under “wanted dead or alive”. Would you mind telling us about that?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: Well, we, some of the CHRO members, started to receive that kind of threatening letter through email in the year 1999. Since then, we have received life-threatening letters from time to time through the egroups or the CHRO email account. Even though we do not know exactly who those people are, we are truly aware that the SPDC and their supporters are not very happy with what we have been doing.
Regarding the relationship between the CHRO and CNF, it is important to note that these two organizations have different nature: CNF is an armed political party that is fighting against the Burmese military regime, and the CHRO is a pure human rights organization. Some times the CHRO field monitors need CNF protection while collecting news and information inside the country. It is true that it would be impossible for CHRO to get access inside the country without the CNF protection in many areas. However, it is not reasonable to accuse the CHRO as the shadow organization of CNF just because of this. The CHRO is independently working to protect and promote human rights under the guidance of its board of directors.
Chin National Journal: Will you mind telling us the funding source of CHRO?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: Certainly. I am very happy to have a chance to tell you, and all of your readers, that the CHRO is so grateful to all our donors and supporters. Without their financial supports, the CHRO would not be able to do what it has done in the past.
The first financial support we received was $ 100/- (one hundred dollars) from the Burma Relief Center (BRC) in 1995. We bought a camera and a tape recorder with that money, and that was the beginning of CHRO collecting human rights news reports from one of the most isolated areas in the world.
In 1998, when we started to publish the Rhododendron newsletter in Ottawa, we did not have any financial source. I worked at a restaurant washing dishes to support the publication of Rhododendron newsletter. After six months, we received support from the Association of Democratic Development in Burma (ADDB) for publication of the Rhododendron Newsletter, and then from the Open Society Institute (OSI), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) starting in 1999, the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Voluntary Fund, The Euro-Burma office, and the Burma issues, Inter Pares. The NED has been the main donor of CHRO works.
We are grateful to exiled Chin communities in various countries for their prayers and supports both morally and financially for the works of CHRO, especially the exiled Chin churches are our strong supporters.
Chin National Journal: Why do you publish CHRO human rights newsletter Rhododendron in English? Since the majority of the Chin people do not read English won’t it be better if you publish CHRO human rights newsletter in the language that many Chin can understand?
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: One of the CHRO objectives is “to provide accurate and reliable information about human rights situation in Chinland and western Burma to the international community.” In accordance with that objective, we started to publish the human rights newsletter Rhododendron in 1998. Our targeted audience was the international community and, in spite of our poor English skills, it has to be published in English. As the western part of Burma and Chin state is very isolated and no foreigner has access to witness and inform the world about what is going on in that area, we believe that it was very important to inform the international community about what is happening in that area. That was the reason why we publish Rhododendron Newsletter in English.
We wanted to publish a human rights newsletter in the language that many Chins and people from Burma can read, and we still do not lost the hope that we will be able to do so in the future. However, at present, we are not capable of implementing many things that we wish to do due to limited financial resource and manpower.
Chin National Journal: Thank you very much for your time. May God bless you.
Salai Bawi Lian Mang: Thank you.
[Salai Bawi Lian Mang is co-founder and director of Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO). He is editor of Rhododendron News, a bi-monthly human rights news publish by CHRO and co-author of “Religious Persecution: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christians in Burma”.]