Burmese Conflict: Presentation.

We will hear a number of presentations on the Burmese conflict. I welcome Chao Tzaing Yawnghwe, spokesperson for the Ethnic Nationalities and Co-ordination Committee; Mr. Martin Lacey; Sara Franch, Trócaire and John Copley, Burma Action Ireland. The presentation will take 20 minutes and there will then be a question and answer session afterwards. I remind the delegation that, while members are covered by privilege, witnesses appearing before the committee are not.

Mr. John Copley

I thank you, Chairman, and members of the sub-committee for giving us to the opportunity to address you on the current situation in Burma. I thank successive Ministers for Foreign Affairs and the staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs who have been supportive of the Burmese democratic movement and Members of the Dáil and Seanad, including Deputies Michael Higgins, McManus and Hoctor and Senator Mooney and Brendan Ryan for their enormous support since Burma Action Ireland was set up seven years ago. We would also like to thank Ireland Aid for the allocation of funding for the consultation and study programme undertaken earlier this month by the leaders of the ethnic nationalities of Burma represented here. In addition, I would like to acknowledge the diplomatic staff of Irish embassies who have facilitated the granting of visas to Burmese visitors to Ireland on many occasions.

I will update the sub-committee on the political situation over the past year in Burma. I will then hand over to Sara Franch from Trócaire who will speak about the consultation and study trip attended by the ethnic leaders over the past ten days in Derry, Belfast and Dublin. She will hand over to Chao Tzaing Yawnghwe who will speak on behalf of the ethnic leaders.

It is with regret that I must report that the past 12 months have shown a spiral of decline in Burma, which has worsened considerably in recent weeks. This time last year the Secretary General of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from 19 months of house arrest by the State Peace and Development Council, the ruling regime in Burma. This, together with the release of a small number of the 1,200 political prisoners in Burma gave rise to some hope that the regime might take the first steps towards a meaningful tripartite dialogue with the NLD and representatives of the ethnic nationalities. Instead, the regime has squandered the many opportunities afforded it and in the past month, has undone the few positive steps taken by launching a vicious crackdown on pro democracy leaders and activists, re-arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders,

These squandered opportunities include repeated visits to the country by both the UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail who has tried to initiate dialogue with the regime and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Dr. Paulo Pinheiro, who sought improvement in the human rights situation. Renewed efforts by the NLD on Burmese Independence Day on 4 January to engage the regime in talks came to nothing. Burma was on the agenda of the EU-ASEAN ministerial conference in Brussels in January. All leading members of the SPDC regime are banned from entering the EU zone but the EU permitted the contentious inclusion of the Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister as a goodwill gesture in the hope that a breakthrough in the impasse about talks could be reached. Predictably, the gesture produced no positive developments.

This brings us to the events of recent weeks. Friday, 30 May 2003, has entered the calendar of Burma's recent troubled history as "Black Friday". Members of the regimes created and controlled political party, the USDA, ambushed a touring motorcade of senior leaders of the National League for Democracy. They blocked the roads and attacked with knives, bamboo spikes and iron bars. Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders in the front three vehicles were only spared serious injury by those in their entourage who intervened to protect them at great cost to themselves. Reliable reports cite up to 70 killed, another 100 missing, universities and opposition offices closed, telephones cut and the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior leaders. Among the missing are NLD deputy chairman Tin Oo, who has not been heard of since, MPs-elect, members of the NLD's youth wing and student activists. Since then, on 6 June, the UN Special Envoy, Razali Ismail, in Burma on yet another talks initiative, was permitted to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and claimed she was in high spirits and appeared uninjured. However, other sources claim a condition of the meeting was that he did not solicit an account of the attack nor discuss her injuries. As of today, she is still under arrest.

The international response to the arrest was immediate. The European Parliament passed a resolution demanding the immediate release of detainees and calling on the Council and the Commission together with the respective bodies in the UN to facilitate the national reconciliation process in Burma. In the last week both the USA and the EU took their strongest economic measures to date. On 11 June the US Senate approved a Bill banning all imports from Burma and the EU Council for General Affairs met on 16 June and elected to bring forward with immediate effect the toughest sanctions proposed in the EU common position on Burma agreed in April.

Before I hand over to Ms Franch, I draw the sub-committee's attention to a number of reports we have brought for its consideration. These include reports from many reputable international organisations documenting widespread human rights violations in Burma in the past year alone.

Ms Sara Franch

I thank Mr. Copley and sub-committee members for giving me the opportunity to introduce the Burmese delegation and the training programme they attended over the past ten days.

A key component of Trócaire's work in Burma is capacity building activities for the democratic movement in exile. A training programme was developed and implemented by Trócaire and partners over the past nine months. This programme, funded by Trócaire and Ireland Aid, included two workshops in Thailand for managers of grass roots organisations and a training programme in Ireland and Northern Ireland for senior leaders in exile. For the last two weeks ten leaders in exile represented here, holding senior positions in ethnic organisations and political parties, attended a training programme on negotiation skills and management of peace processes with particular reference to the Northern Ireland experience. In terms of ethnic representation, all the major groups in Burma are represented, including Arakan, Burman, Shan, Kachin, Karenni, Karen and Mon. The programme included training in managing peace processes and second track diplomacy school at the summer school in Derry. There were delegations and meetings in Belfast with diverse political groupings within the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss the talks about talks period and the peace process and to explore the benefits and problems associated with the conduct of politics through debate. There were also opportunities to explore the role of civil society in a peace process and for doing awareness raising and advocacy work in Burma.

It is expected that this programme will strengthen the capacity of these leaders in exile so that they can effectively participate in negotiations with the military government and manage a transition to national reconciliation and a democratic system of governance. This is in line with Trócaire's strategy to promote national reconciliation and democracy in Burma through a tripartite dialogue involving the military government, the NLD and representatives of the ethnic nationalities.

I will hand over to Mr. Yawnghwe, the Shan representative and member of the Ethnic Nationality Solidarity and Co-ordination Committee, who will outline the next steps that the international community can take to bring about democracy.

Mr. Chao Tzaing Yawnghwe

I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to visit this Parliament. The SPDC, the military regime itself, has committed itself to a democratic transition change in international parliaments. Despite that it has violated the truce by attacking a motorcade recently. As such, the position of the opposition movement is that we are still committed to peaceful change in Burma and the movement calls on the United Nations to upgrade its role in bringing about a smooth and orderly political transition in Burma, including scrutiny by the Security Council of the obstacles standing in the way of peaceful resolution in the country. The opposition also calls on the UN, the United States, the EU and members of the international community to seriously focus on the establishment of an effective political mechanism and a road map that will move the dialogue process forward. This would include a more active mediation role involving the UN or other governments, plus specific assistance, provided there is dialogue in transition and the peace process. Burma will need a lot of assistance in this regard.

We call upon the EU and other governments and leaders to send the military junta a very clear message as the US has recently done via a ban on imports from Burma. The opposition would like governments of the EU to urge Burma's neighbours in ASEAN, an EU partner, to tell the SPDC at every opportunity that there is no alternative to dialogue.

Mr. Copley

Burma Action Ireland and Trocaire support these calls to the international community to focus on the establishment of an effective political mechanism that will lead to national reconciliation and a democratic system of governance in Burma.

I am late for another meeting but the delegates will know I have a long standing and passionate interest in this subject. I wanted to propose a resolution based on the recommendations in the statement by Mr. Yawnghwe which would be sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs with our support.

Is that a formal proposal? We will deal with that later in the meeting.

Forgive me as I have to leave but that would be as effective as a long debate and presumably it is what they are trying to achieve.

First, I welcome the delegation, particularly the representatives of the Ethnic Nationalities and Solidarity Co-ordinating Committee. I have no difficulty agreeing with the motion proposed by Senator Mooney, which contains fine elements, but we should do a bit more. I remember clearly, though it is nearly 22 years ago, when the late partner of Aung San Suu Kyi rang me to raise the issue of her detention for the first time. That is over two decades ago, which seems like forever. Whenever we discussed this at EU level there was a profound contradiction at the heart of what we were doing, but we are stuck with that contradiction. On one hand we are assuming the regime is brutal in its repression, given the socio-economic conditions visited upon its people with forced labour, for example. When one looks at commodity production in Burma, both the legal and illicit trade, it has always been a weak assumption that the military regime will change so fundamentally as to accept all sorts of well meaning demands from the international community.

At the same time, if one has to choose between opposition and conflict, and the possibility of achieving progress through some form of dialogue, even a deeply flawed dialogue, one chooses the latter. There are examples from around the world which show the success of that second strategy. However, this was an immense step backwards after the elections which delivered such a massive result to the MPD.

One problem with this is that at a regional level, as far as I can see, no economic embargo has been implemented and Burma's leadership has been welcomed at most regional dialogues at a political level. I am depressed after the conversation we had on our first theme that we are now discussing the most basic human rights and I am struck by the striking parallels between what the Burmese Government said about rights to the international community - doing what it can afford to do and what is appropriate for Burma - and we saying we will do what we is appropriate to do because we really mean it. After one questions the universality of rights one quickly questions democracy and its fundamentals, making it conditional. One gets military-led democracies, such as that referred to by the Burmese administration, though those are a fundamental contradiction in terms.

At EU and UN levels there are five components to what is being proposed. We have been calling for several decades for the effective release of Aung San Suu Kyi but the only change that occurs is the difference between the terms of detention. Sometimes it is varied in its conditions from house arrest to limited movement and so forth. The European Union has to be much stronger in its comments. People like myself are getting a bit jaded from listening to discussions after the event in foreign affairs committees or listening to set piece debates about events.

Are we taking an initiative to form a common position in the European Union? Is there a common position on issues such as this? It is fascinating to see the difference between the position adopted by some of the Scandinavian countries and the British position. The British have extensive trade with Burma. Is that a European position or a British position? That question could be asked. With regard to the United Nations, considerable damage is done by the acceptance of invitations under limited conditions. In relation to another matter, the Middle East peace process at the level of the European Union was badly served by several botched visits by Javier Solana. Most people in the region will confirm that. The only thing worse than a botched visit is the botched visitor taking it upon himself or herself to make comments that have not been cleared by the Council of the European Union.

In this case, somebody saying that he found Aung San Suu Kyi in high spirits is deeply damaging. The issue is, with respect to the eminent person involved, beyond her survival. It is the right of the person who has received a mandate from the country to lead that country, for conditions of democracy to prevail and for a transition to take place. I accept the five points put before us but we should add a sixth. We should call on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to put this subject, the European Union's attitude, on the agenda of the next General Council meeting of the European Union. We should also communicate the views of this sub-committee to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

I agree with Deputy Higgins. There is always the vested interest in the European Union when a former colonial power has an interest in another area. They will always have left a little rat pack somewhere along the line. Thankfully, we were never in a position to be a colonial power because this country was already a colony. However, it is an important issue.

Can the delegation tell us what is the level of imports to Ireland and the EU from Burma? What types of materials are imported? Does the trade balance favour Burma? What action has America taken and how effective has it been? Have the delegates been to the Council of Europe as well? This matter has not arisen in the political affairs committee of the Council of Europe in the past year or so.

I watched an interview with the Burmese Foreign Minister on CNN last night. I thought it a depressing affair because he did not address the scale of the problem. In response to questions from the interviewer about the possibility of greater progress and the release of prisoners, he put it on the long finger. With regard to sanctions and given that Burma is an impoverished country, what will be the practical effect on the citizens of Burma of the sanctions or will they just have an effect on the regime? There has been an international debate, in the context of Cuba, Iraq and other countries, on the effectiveness of international sanctions. What are the practical aspects of the sanctions on Burma?

Mr. Martin Lacey

The level of imports into Ireland from Burma is minuscule. We believe there are some imports of hardwoods and, possibly, gemstones. My colleague, John Copley, has been to practically all the retail clothing shops in this city and there are virtually no imports of clothing from Burma. We have conducted a campaign asking shops in the UK and in Ireland to refrain from sourcing materials in Burma and there has been a great deal of co-operation from the major high street outlets. That includes Dunnes Stores in Ireland.

With regard to sanctions, the Americans have been ahead of the EU in that they have had a ban on new investment for the last four years. EU sanctions largely consist of no arms sales to Burma. That has been in effect since 1988. The other sanctions mainly affect members of the regime not being allowed to visit Europe. We would like the Europeans to follow the Americans by imposing an investment ban. The Americans have also, as of last week, imposed a ban on all imports from Burma. While we call on the international community and its institutions to do certain things, the activist groups are also making efforts with business. We have asked companies to withdraw their involvements in Burma. The biggest investment from the European Union in Burma is through the French Total oil company. The company does not operate here so we have no way of directing questions to the company in this country. In France and Belgium, however, activist groups are targeting that company for breach of human rights.

With regard to how sanctions will affect the people, Aung San Suu Kyi, the secretary general of the party, is quite clear that she is in favour of the extension and maintenance of sanctions, including investment bans and bans on imports from Burma and on the development of mass tourism. The military has made several attempts to develop tourism but has failed to do so. In response to Deputy Higgins, it is true that the military regime is imploding. The economy is in ruins and one of the only growth industries is the opium trade. The military is heavily involved in that trade. This has become a major factor in Burma's relationships with its neighbours. Thailand and the other ASEAN countries are becoming more agitated that Burma stands as a block in the development of EU/ASEAN relations.

If we can get this matter raised at the Security Council, we can try to get the Chinese to show their hand on the issue. China is the only country still supplying the regime with weaponry. We support Senator Mooney's proposal.

Deputy Higgins has proposed a strengthening amendment to Senator Mooney's proposal. Is there a seconder for Deputy Higgins's amendment?

I second the proposal.

The group has indicated that it desires that we would make certain feelings known to the Chinese authorities and that we could perhaps do so by way of a letter to the embassy. Is there any other issue you wish to raise with the committee?

Ms Franch

With regard to the impact of economic sanctions on the people of the country, Trócaire is an agency that works outside with the democratic movement and does advocacy work but at the same time we work inside the country with local organisations. Our concern is about the effect this could have on people. In our experience, we want to have sanctions that have a suitable human face and take into account the impact they would have on the local population. As Mr. Lacey said, the democratic movement has called for sanctions. We support this call. We are eager to continue to work with local organisations inside the country. Civil society has been destroyed by the regime but in the past year there has been movement towards reorganising civil society at the grass roots level with small community groups that are bringing people together to work at village level to address livelihood security issues. We continue to work to try and strengthen these initiatives through training and through technical assistance. This is our contribution towards the mitigation of the effects of sanctions on ordinary people.

The rhetoric of the military regime will always be that their original justification for ignoring the mandate was that chaos would ensue. The empowerment of people at village level and at base level is a very important activity. Also curiously, I believe I have learned this much, that even if the result of the election had been accepted, there would be a need for that kind of political development in Burma under any regime. We should ask Ireland Aid to note the significance of the base work of Trócaire and we should urge that it increase its support.

Is our composite motion to be the original motion of Senator Mooney, the addendum of Deputy Higgins - the six points - and the mention of Ireland Aid?

And Trócaire to be included.

And Trócaire. What was your official "add on", shall we call it, to the five point motion, Deputy Higgins?

One was in relation to the General Council meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers of the European Union. Two was in relation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva and three is a recommendation to Ireland Aid that it note the work of Trócaire and increase its support.

Is that agreed? Agreed. I thank the delegation for its presentation. We would like to give more time to the presentation but the committee has other business to deal with. We will keep in touch with you regarding any developments arising from our motion and our correspondence. Should you wish to make another presentation we will consider your case.