April 17, 2021

Where Real Power Lies in Burma: Interview with BCUK Director Mark Farmaner

09 April 2011: [CG Note: Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) plays a leading role in raising awareness about the situation in Burma, and pressuring the international community to take action in support of the people of Burma.

Founded in 1991, Burma Campaign UK, one of the leading Burma campaign organisations in the world, works for human rights, democracy and development in Burma.

In this interview conducted by Van Biak Thang of Chinland Guardian, Mark Farmaner talks about new government in Burma, sanction, a UN Commission of Inquiry and more.]

Chinland Guardian: The military government officially handed power to the civilian-led parliament last Wednesday. Do you think it is a positive transitional process towards democracy in Burma or just another game that the regime plays?

Mark Farmaner: Burma Campaign UK does not agree that power has been handed to a civilian led Parliament. For a start, Parliament has no power, MPs cannot even ask the questions they want to, let alone pass motions or bills that change laws. And secondly, it isn’t civilian led. It is military dominated, even if some military have taken off their uniforms.

At the end of the day though, whether the government is civilian or military, it is still a dictatorship, it is still committing the same human rights abuses, it is still stealing the wealth of the nation for a small super-rich minority.

What we have seen is a transition from SLORC to SPDC to NDSC. The new National Defence and Security Council is where real power is, not Parliament.

Burma has been here before. Than Shwe has pretty much copied what Ne Win did between 1972-1994. If the generals were genuine about change they could enter into dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic representatives. They could release political prisoners, allow freedom of speech and a free media. They would stop military attacks against ethnic civilians. Nothing is stopping them doing these things, but they haven’t. It is clear from their actions they have no interest in genuine democratic change.

Chinland Guardian: So what do you think the UN should do with this new government this time after a series of attempts made but with no concrete solutions?

Mark Farmaner: The UN has a record of failure on Burma. Parts of the UN ignore, cover up and play down human rights abuses and levels of poverty in the country. Envoys consistently make the same mistake, playing it soft with the generals and hoping they will be reasonable. Sending low levels envoys is not the way forward. We know from experience this does not work. What is needed is high level dialogue, from the Secretary General himself. He also has the ability to try to pull together the international community, to find points of agreement to try to get a more united international approach. Successive Secretary Generals have failed to do this.

Chinland Guardian: People across the globe had voiced for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for years. Now she has been released but seems to be just ignored by the government and her party is declared illegal. Was it such a well-planned action that the regime did? Do you think people’s expectation out of her release could also be negatively affected?

Mark Farmaner: We must be clear, the dictatorship is very afraid of Aung San Suu Kyi, which is why they have kept her locked up for most of the past 20 years. But they are also very smart, and play a very clever game with the people of Burma and the international community. They kept Aung San Suu Kyi and many leaders detained, and then in the space left behind they encouraged others to operate, to try to split the democracy movement. They allowed the so-called third force space to operate, to meet diplomats and journalists, and receive money from overseas. Genuine pro-democracy activists get arrested for these kinds of things. Third force leaders don’t. By silencing the democracy movements leaders and allowing third force to operate the generals tried to convince the international community the democracy movement is split. They then created a new constitution and rules which would make it impossible for the NLD to take part in the election. They hoped that by presenting the movement as split, and trying to sideline the NLD, they could consolidate their rule and fool the international community into dropping pressure.

However, Burma’s history tells us that these fake parliaments are never a vehicle for genuine change. The NLD understands this, which is why they have refused to take part in this sham. Under colonial rule the British created these Parliaments and assemblies, but independence was not won in these assemblies, it was won outside them. And Ne Win’s regime was brought down, but it did not happen in the sham parliament he had created. It was the people on the streets which brought down his regime. A bird which wants freedom to fly does not climb into a cage. This is why the NLD has not registered as a party and taken part in the fake Parliament.

Now Aung San Suu Kyi has been released there is more opportunity for real voices of the people to be heard. The NLD is rebuilding networks and this will take time. The more people who get involved, the sooner freedom will be won.

Chinland Guardian: Some think sanction on Burma is not successful as there are still some investors including Total, and others say even if western companies pull out, at least Chinese and Indian will come in. What is your view on this?

Mark Farmaner: When people began calling for sanctions they didn’t think that they would bring down the regime. People have forgotten the history. Stronger calls for targeted economic sanctions began in the mid 1990’s. Remember the situation then. The NLD had compromised and taken part in the national convention, but it was a totally rigged and false process, the dictatorship allowed no opinions other than its own, and dialogue had broken down.

At the same time, for the past 6 years, the dictatorship has allowed more trade and investment, but only in a way which maximised the money that went directly to them. There was billions of dollars of trade and investment, but this didn’t go on schools and hospitals, it went on more weapons, and more soldiers, and luxury homes for the generals. The dictatorship was doubling the size of the army, but only so it could increase its own control. Human rights abuses increased, especially in ethnic states, where more and more Burmese Army bases were built. Even in States with ceasefires these soldiers rape, steal and use local people as slave labour.

As dialogue had broken down and increased trade and investment had not helped people, and in fact had harmed them, sanctions carefully targeted at the generals were seen as one way, not the only way, but one important way, to try to persuade the generals to enter into dialogue.

But what happened was effective and strong sanctions in support of diplomatic efforts to get dialogue were never introduced. Sanctions were only agreed after the dictatorship committed an atrocity, as a kind of punishment, not to promote dialogue. And those sanctions were not coordinated between countries applying them, and not targeted in the way we wanted them to be.

However, even the weak sanctions that are in place must be having some impact, because the dictatorship complains about them so much. There is no way anyone can say that the dictatorship genuinely cares about the people, so the only explanation for them complaining is that they are hurt by them. This shows that sanctions still have potential to help the democracy movement, if the right sanctions were applied in the right way.

Chinland Guardian: Political parties in Burma have different opinions among themselves. Some are in favour while others are against and the people, who are actually suffering, seem to be ‘confused’.

Mark Farmaner: I am surprised by how little some of the politicians who say that sanctions hurt the people even know about the sanctions. I haven’t seen them give any concrete evidence that sanctions hurt ordinary people in Burma. The dictatorship have constantly churned out lies blaming sanctions for poverty and economic problems in Burma, and many people seem to have fallen for these lies. One example I have heard given many times is the withdrawal of GSP privileges and other sanctions in 2001 making many factories close and many people lose their jobs.

But no new sanctions were brought in then. The EU withdrew GSP privileges four years before then, because of the widespread use of forced labour by the dictatorship.  Actually, one of the main reasons for factories closing around that time was the banking crisis caused by the bad policies of the dictatorship. The dictatorship repeated the lie that it was because of sanctions so often people came to believe it, but it wasn’t true.

Chinland Guardian: There have been some speculations that Burma could face similar public protests happening in the Middle East. Any possibility?

Mark Farmaner:
From the people we talk to across Burma we don’t get a sense that large public protests are likely in the short term. But there is great suffering and anger, and if there is a trigger, as there was in 1988 and 2007, that could quickly change. But lessons must be learned from past uprisings. Activists must find ways to reach out to ordinary soldiers, as in the past they have always followed the orders to shoot. Senior commanders are unlikely to want to switch sides, they do very well and have a lot to lose if there is democracy. But many ordinary soldiers are badly treated, demoralised and unhappy. They must be turned into allies.

Chinland Guardian: Given all the evidence of human rights violations and other forms of repressive measures that the Burmese junta has inflicted upon its own people, the international community, especially Western countries, are still so soft in dealing with Burmese issues. Can we say so?

Mark Farmaner:
It is incredibly frustrating how weak the international community has been on Burma. And it is not consistent. Other countries with human rights records as bad as, or even not as bad as Burma’s, face stronger action. Look at Libya now. Organisation like Burma Campaign UK do our best, but people in Burma must realise that the international community will not come riding to the rescue and get rid of the dictatorship. We hope we can get the international community to play a strong supporting role.

Things have improved. Five years ago you rarely had world leaders talking about Burma, it was usually junior envoys or junior government ministers. Not it is common for world leaders to discuss Burma. When something serious happens in Burma it is now discussed by the UN Security Council, the top, the most powerful, body in the world. This is another step forward. We have not yet translated this is strong enough practical action, but slow progress is being made. We will never stop pushing for more.

Chinland Guardian: Burma Campaign UK has been active in campaigning in support of action against ‘Crimes against Humanity’ in Burma. How practical is it in terms of implementation?

Mark Farmaner: This is a very long-term campaign, and with many challenges. We are campaigning for a UN Commission of Inquiry, to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.

We want an Inquiry because we need a thorough and independent investigation into human rights abuses which break international law. We expect that such an investigation will have a big impact on governments around the world, and how they approach Burma. For example, at the moment, because of the sham elections and because Aung San Suu Kyi has been released, many governments are saying things are getting better in Burma. They completely ignore what is going on in ethnic states. They ignore the other 2,200 political prisoners still in jail. A Commission of Inquiry will focus attention on some of the most serious human rights abuses taking place in the world today.

Some say we already know what is going on, but many governments really do not. And there are many challenges. For example, when I was on a lobbying trip in Japan, I met with the foreign ministry, and gave them reports. But they said they could not read them. They said the policy of the Japanese government is it only considers official reports from the UN, governments and official bodies. They don’t take NGO reports seriously. Many other governments are the same. So having a UN Inquiry will be useful also for educating governments worldwide.

An inquiry will hopefully have a short term impact of reducing human rights abuses, as for the first time the dictatorship will realise it may be held accountable for the crimes it is committing. An inquiry is also essential for justice and ending this impunity to commit abuses. Burma’s generals should be in a jail cell, not luxury homes.

A UN Commission of Inquiry can be set up by the UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Secretary General, or the UN Security Council.

Opposition from China and Russia means getting an Inquiry from the Security Council or Secretary General is unlikely at the moment. So the General Assembly and Human Rights Council are our best chances. They can establish an Inquiry by including it in the Burma resolutions they pass. The next chance for this at the Human Rights Council is in June, and at the General Assembly, which passes its annual resolution on Burma in December.

The European Union drafts these resolutions, which is why we have been focussing on getting European countries to support an inquiry.

The campaign has been making progress faster than we expected, but it is by no means certain that we will get an Inquiry this year. We have a big struggle ahead of us. And even if a resolution did establish an Inquiry, it could still be months after that before it is up and running, and could take a year, and then we would have to see what findings and recommendations there are, and then start all over again lobbying the international community to act on those findings and recommendations. This is a long-term campaign. Things could move faster if there was international will, but on Burma there rarely is that strong will for fast and effective action.

I know some people feel like there is little hope, that the dictatorship carries on and nothing seems to help to get rid of it, but I am optimistic. I think the dictatorship is not as strong as it claims to be. We hear more and more stories about how demoralised ordinary soldiers in the army are, and how many desertions there are. Look at how much trouble they are having defeating just a few hundred DKBA soldiers who refused to become the border guard force. And we must remember that the whole so-called roadmap to democracy which led to the fake elections was only started because the generals were afraid of sanctions and other action after the Depayin Massacre in 2003.

I was involved in the anti-apartheid campaign for South-Africa. That went on for decades. People then said pressure wasn’t working, sanctions were not working, and they kept Nelson Mandela in jail for much longer than Aung san Suu Kyi has been in jail. But behind the scenes the pressure was working. The South Africa regime hid it, but it crumbled in the end. The same happened with many of the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. They looked strong, but below the surface they were rotting and falling apart. No-one expected them all to fall so fast. The same is happening now in North Africa. Burma’s turn will come. It is just a matter of time. But the harder everyone works for it, the sooner it will happen.

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