Voice for the Voiceless: Interview with Benedict Rogers
28 January 2007, London, UK [CG Note: On a Midland mainline train to London from Sheffield where the visiting Chin delegation had for the first time a meeting with the Karen in the UK and received a warm welcome from the Karen community,
Van Biak Thang of Chinland Guardian had an opportunity to interview Benedict Rogers, advocacy officer for South Asia at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, about his new report Carrying The Cross, his experiences, his views on a thwarted United Nations Security Council resolution on Burma and more …]
Chinland Guardian: How did you start getting involved in Burma issues?
Ben Rogers: I first got involved in early 2000. Before that, I was a little bit involved and interested in Burma but the first time I became fully involved was 2000 when I visited the Thai-Burmese border – the Karen and Karenni refugee camps and IDPs. The reason I got involved was that I was actually doing a lot of work on the issues of East Timor which had a similar struggle for human rights and freedom. And I had a colleague from Australia, who was travelling to East Timor with me. He is somebody who has been visiting the Thai-Burmese border at least twice a year every year since 1988. He told me more about the situation in Burma and I asked him if I could go with him. And that’s how I began.
Chinland Guardian: How long have you been working with CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide) and what is your position?
Ben Rogers: I have been working full-time for the last four years and actually been involved for about 13 years. I got involved in 1994 when I was a student. First of all, I started the youth section of CSW as a student. Then, I joined the board of trustees of CSW. And then I went out to Hong Kong and founded CSW Hong Kong. All during that time, I was just doing it voluntarily in my spare time. But then when I came back from Hong Kong in 2002, I really felt I wanted to go full-time with this work. And they offered me a position firstly to go to Washington DC to set up CSW in Washington DC. When I came back from Washington DC, they offered me my current position which is Advocacy Officer for South Asia. And I focus on Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and to some extent on Bangladesh.
Chinland Guardian: We have learned that you have been to the Indian-Burmese border twice. What did you do and could you tell us a bit about the trip?
Ben Rogers: I went basically to find out more about the situation of the Chin people. It is part of CSW’s philosophy, and my strong personal belief, that in order to be effective in our advocacy, it’s important to try and go and see the first-hand stories so that we can speak with credibility and we can say that we have seen the situation and we have met people who are victims of the human rights violations rather than referring to other people’s reports. So, I really wanted to go and on both trips, we interviewed quite a number of people who has experienced religious persecutions, forced labour and other human rights violations such as torture. And we documented those interviews in our reports, which we issued after both visits. We also visited the church communities in Aizawl and visited some clinics with the backpack health worker team. That’s what we basically did.
Chinland Guardian: In addition to your work with CSW, what else do you do?
Ben Rogers: In addition to my work with CSW, I have three other main areas of activities. The first is that I serve as deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. That was set up about 18 months ago in order to highlight issues of human rights and inform the Conservative Party foreign policy and to get the Conservative Party to be raising concerns about human rights in parliament and elsewhere and helping to shape the future foreign policy. Secondly, I am a trustee of a charity called the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), which is a charity set up by Baroness Cox who has been to the India-Burma border with me twice. Baroness Cox is the Patron of CSW but she set up HART in order to focus primarily on humanitarian aid issues because CSW is primarily focused on human rights advocacy issues. The third area of my activities is that I continue is to write quite regularly. I used to be a full-time journalist and an activist in my spare time. And I wanted to reverse the order – to become an activist full-time and journalist at my spare time. I have written a book and co-authored another book and I may be writing another book in due course. But I write regularly for newspapers and magazines, particularly on issues related to Burma and other parts of Asia.
Chinland Guardian: We have learned that you published a new report on Burma called Carrying The Cross. What prompted you to write this report?
Ben Rogers: Actually, the main prompting to write this report came from two non-Christian organisations and one or two individuals who are not Christians. All of them said to me that there has been nothing apart from CHRO reports – nothing comprehensive on the situation of the persecution of Christians in Burma. And they said that there have been several reports on the persecution of Muslims and there was the AAPP’s (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners) report on the imprisonment of Buddhist monks. But there was nothing comprehensive on the situation for Christians across all denominations and all ethnic groups. Before they raised this issue with me, I was always a little bit reluctant to highlight too much the issue of religious persecutions because I thought I took the view that everybody in Burma is suffering, although of course I always mentioned religious persecution alongside other human rights issues. But I didn’t want to single out Christians above other people. But when organisations and individuals who were approaching this issue, not from a Christian perspective, said to me, “Why don’t you do a report on this Christian persecution,” I couldn’t really ignore that. That’s the main prompting to do it.
Chinland Guardian: You organised this advocacy trip for the Chin and the Kachin delegations. Why only the Chin and the Kachin and not other ethnic groups?
Ben Rogers: There are a number of reasons. First of all, I think Burma as a whole gets very little attention and we all recognise that it needs to get more attention. But when we do hear about Burma, we hear mostly about Aung San Suu Kyi and democracy movements. And we hear increasingly about the Karen and the IDP situation in eastern Burma. I am involved in highlighting both these issues, and they both need more attention. We still don’t hear enough about the Karen, or about the political prisoners. But we almost never hear about the plight of the Chin and the Kachin. I felt after my visits to the Chin border and to Kachin State that there was a real need to raise the profile and awareness about the Chin and Kachin. And also, we had a limited budget and so we felt it was better to target our budget on something specific. There is of course a place for a delegation that includes the other ethnic groups as well. I am certainly in favour of that. But I think it was important on this occasion to use the opportunity to give the Chin and Kachin a voice that they have not until now been given. Of course we also linked our focus on the Chin and the Kachin to the wider pro-democracy and human rights movement, by focusing on specific actions the UK and EU could take on Burma.
Chinland Guardian: Who were you meeting with in this trip and what were the main messages that you delivered? And do you think your messages were received well?
Ben Rogers: We met with a lot of people. We met with a number of senior members of parliament. We met with Lord Alton in the House of Lords; we met with a number of NGOs and did quite a lot of media interviews. Perhaps the two most significant meetings were that we had a meeting with the Minister of State in the Foreign Office, the government minister who is responsible for human rights and for Burma, Ian McCartney. And we also had an opportunity to brief Lambeth Palace, the staff of the archbishop of Canterbury [the head of the Church of England] . We also met with senior Labour Party, Conservative Party and Liberal Democrat MPs and addressed a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma. And the general reception was very positive. I think there were a lot of interests in the delegations from MPs because they didn’t know anything about Chin and Kachin. So, they were very interested to learn more. I think the meeting with the government minister Ian McCartney was particularly positive. He indicated that he was very sympathetic to concerns and that he would raise the issues of religious freedom and the other human rights issues in the appropriate arenas and that he would continue to find ways to put pressure on ASEAN, China, India and work within the European Union to strengthen the pressure on the regime. So, it’s very positive.
Chinland Guardian: What is the level of British media interest in this advocacy trip?
Ben Rogers: I think there have been some interests. I think in terms of domestic mainstream media, there is still a long way to go. We had one piece in the Sunday Telegraph and that was related to my report on Christian persecutions but it didn’t mention particularly the delegations but it talked about the report. We had quite a lot of interviews with BBC World Radio, BBC Burmese, and also with Christian radio station Premier Radio. Possibly, I think the Christian media has been more interested than the mainstream circular media, perhaps, because they have more space to cover this kind of issues and maybe also because they are particularly interested in the issue of a Christian persecution. So, there has been a good amount of interests but I think Burma as a whole and the Chin in particular are still underreported and we need to try to get more media interests in the mainstream media.
Chinland Guardian: From an advocacy point of view, what should be the strategy after the failure of the UNSC resolution on Burma? And what are your views on the veto by China and Russia as well as South Africa?
Ben Rogers: Well, I will take the second part of the question first. I was obviously very disappointed that China and Russia vetoed it and I was horrified that South Africa opposed it because China and Russia’s veto was not that surprising but it’s disappointing. South Africa’s opposition was extremely surprising and I think it’s really very hard to explain and impossible to justify. Given the South African’s history and given the fact that Desmond Tutu had co-sponsored the report to bring Burma to the agenda of UN Security Council. I think it’s astonishing that South Africa took the action they did. And I think many people who campaigned against the apartheid in South Africa and many of the international activists will be feeling extremely angry with South Africa that South Africa seems not to have learned the lessons of its own struggle. So, that was very disappointing. I had hoped that China and Russia might be persuaded to abstain although I don’t think realistically we could have expected them to support it. I had thought that there might be a chance they might abstain. I think then their using their vetoes was very disappointing because if China and Russia want to be taken as serious responsible players in the international community, they should act responsibly. And the thing about this resolution was that it was a very, very mild resolution – it didn’t impose any sanctions, it didn’t impose any form of punitive actions and it simply required the regime to engage in the tripartite dialogue with the ethnic nationalities and National League for Democracy. And also, of course, calls for the release of political prisoners and the opening up of the country to humanitarian organisations and all of those demands in the resolution were entirely reasonable and I can’t see why China and Russia would have any problems with those specific recommendations. So, I can only think that China and Russia are putting their own short-term commercial and strategic interests first rather than the interest of not only Burma but also regional and international stability.
As to the strategy from now on, I have a number of thoughts. First of all, although the veto was disappointing, we should be careful about not conceding defeat to the vetoes, of course the veto means the resolution is not passed but the majority of the members of the Security Council, I believe nine members, voted in favour of it. It was only China, Russia and South Africa who opposed it. So, we should be saying to the SPDC that even though China, Russia and South Africa opposed it, the majority view on the Security Council was that their behaviour is unacceptable and that they can not take this defeat to the resolution as a green light to what they are doing. And we should be sending that message very strongly. And the European Union needs to make a statement on the issue. The EU as a bloc has not said anything on this matter so they need to make a statement sending the regime a strong signal. I think they should strengthen the European Union common position when it’s up for annual in April and impose meaningful targeted sanctions on the regime. The current EU sanctions are almost meaningless and they are very weak and I think they need to be strengthened. And the other thing that needs to be done is to find a way to engage with China, Russia, ASEAN and India to try to find the way to convince them to use the influence that they have with the regime and to try to bring the regime to the table to dialogue in a meaningful way with the ethnic nationalities and the NLD. And that’s not going to be easy but I think it’s a very important point that we really need to get China, Russia, ASEAN and India to do far more on this issue. We also need to keep the issue on the table within the UN. I don’t think we should give up on the resolution although we need to recognise the resolution was vetoed. But I think we should keep it on the agendas of the Security Council to make sure that the UN Secretary General remains engaged with the issue and make sure that the Security Council members have regular updates on the situation in Burma and that they continue to be at a discussion on the way forwards and make sure that human rights council and the general assembly continue to address the issue and raise the profile. And also on the issue of religious freedom, the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief, as to my knowledge, never addressed the issue of Burma as a part of her mandate. We want her to investigate the violations of religious freedom in Burma. To find my points on that, we had sent a copy of Carrying The Cross at the special rapporteur office and we have heard back from her office that they are very interested in it and that they are going to study the report. We hope they will take it up. Also, a group of members of parliament had tabled what we call an ‘Early Day Motion’ in the House of Commons as a statement of concerns about religious freedom in Burma. And that’s received almost 100 signatures by MPs so far and that called on of the UN special rapporteur to address this issue. The Special Rapporteur’s office is aware of the Early Day Motion. And so, those are some of the ways forward.
Chinland Guardian: Where else are you going after the UK and who are you planning on meeting?
Ben Rogers: Well, we will be going to Brussels and we will be meeting members of the EU Parliament, officials in the European Commission, and the officials in the European Council. Then we will be going on to Berlin. We will be meeting the representatives of the German Foreign Ministry, members of the German parliament, also some church group in Berlin. This is because Germany has the Presidency of the EU at the moment. And then, we will be going to Washington DC and we will be meeting senior people of the US State Department, a number of congressmen, and also congressional staff, and US Commission on the International religious freedom, and a number of NGOs active on or interested in Burma issues. And we will be highlighting religious freedom, the other human rights violations such as rape, forced labour and also the issue of human trafficking particularly in Kachin Sate, and we will be raising issues of human trafficking with the US State Department Office on human trafficking. And those are some of the things we will be doing.
The other thing we did in London that was I think worth mentioning was that on Thursday night, we were in Oxford and we had the opportunity to address a meeting organised by the Oxford University Burma Society, held in St. Hughes College, which is the college that Aung San Suu Kyi studied in and it was actually held in the room that is named after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – The Aung San Suu Kyi Room. And a new portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, which has been painted by a Karen refugee artist, was unveiled. I think the symbolism of Chin and Kachin speaking in Aung San Suu Kyi room with a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi that has been painted by a Karen, all of that symbolises unity – unity in diversity that recognises diversity in culture, religious beliefs of different ethnic groups in Burma but recognising that we are all together behind Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and behind the movement for democracy and human rights society. That was a very symbolic occasion and I was privileged to be a part of that.
Chinland Guardian: Thank you very much for your time.
Ben Rogers: My pleasure.