Human rights, the law and violence in 2010

Original from New Mandala

Human rights, the law and violence in 2010


Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) last week quietly published its report on human rights violations during the political protests and the crackdown of 2010. The NHRC’s report has some serious problems, for which the NHRC should be criticised. In this article I list 8 problems that I regard as the most serious.

1. The NHRC does not understand the difference between violating human rights and violating the law

It should be quite obvious that violating human rights is different from breaking the law. The fact that someone violates the law does not imply that he also violates human rights. And the fact that someone abides by the law does not imply that he abides by the principles of human rights.

However, the NHRC does not seem to understand this distinction. On page 52-53, the NHRC writes: “The demonstration [by the UDD on 22 April 2010] involved acts that constituted violations of various laws, and caused troubles and damage. So we can say that the UDD’s demonstration involved acts that violated human rights.”

Here the NHRC is taking the UDD’s “violations of various laws” as a premise to support the conclusion that the UDD’s demonstration “involved acts that violated human rights”. In reality, a violation of a law is not necessarily a violation of human rights.

Moreover, the NHRC’s report, instead of focusing on the question whether the protesters and the security forces violated human rights, focused on the question whether the protesters and the security forces abided by the law and the Constitution, which has little to do with human rights. Out of the 8 sections in the NHRC’s report, the first two sections contain no instance of the word “human rights” at all (except for one instance which occurs in the phrase “National Human Rights Commission”).

In the section about the government’s decision to declare a state of emergency and set up the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES), the NHRC devotes all the space to giving reasons why the government’s decision was “in accordance with the law and the Constitution”. The NHRC never mentions, for example, the fact that the Emergency Decree allowed authorities to violate human rights without being held legally accountable. Likewise, the whole section on the closure of People’s Channel (PTV) is dedicated to specifying why the closure of PTV was “necessary and appropriate for the circumstance” and “in accordance with the law”. No instance of the word “human rights” occurs in this section.

2. The NHRC does not understand the difference between human rights and other rights

The NHRC’s report shows that the NHRC does not understand that human rights are different from ordinary rights, and that violating human rights is different from causing troubles and inconveniences. The NHRC spends a good portion of the report explaining how the UDD’s protests caused troubles and violated some rights and freedom – such as the right to drive vehicles freely without being blocked by protesters, and the freedom to conduct business without being disturbed by protests – as if these rights were human rights.

For example, on page 30 the NHRC writes: “Some protesters had moved to Ratchaprasong intersection, which is an important business area. The protest aimed to block traffic routes and prevent people from using their vehicles, as the area is an important transport hub in the heart of Bangkok. Also, the protest continued for several days without a scheduled end, which affected important businesses, caused troubles, and prevented people from working and living as they normally do.”

In reality, the freedom to drive vehicles unobstructed and the freedom to work and conduct business undisturbed, though often recognised by the state as legal rights, are not human rights.

The NHRC also writes: “[The protesters’] dumping blood outside the Democrats Party’s headquarters, the Government House, and the Prime Minister’s house, caused troubles for the owners or occupiers of those places, and was a symbol that promoted violence.”(Page 30) In reality, no serious human rights organisation will regard the act of dumping unpleasant substances outside politicians’ houses or offices as human rights violations.

On page 72, the NHRC writes: “The UDD’s demonstration was one that caused confusion and unrest in the land. It involved burning and destroying a large number of private and public properties. So the demonstration violated other people’s property rights, which are protected by Article 41 of the Constitution. It also violated the Criminal Code, which prohibited arson attacks against public or private properties, as well as theft. So the UDD’s actions affected other people’s property rights, and therefore constituted violations of human rights.”

The NHRC does not seem to understand that the freedom to live without “confusion and unrest” is not a human right. Neither is the right not to have one’s properties damaged or destroyed. (Or if we take the latter right to be a human right, then it is, in that case, a very low-priority one – so much so that most human rights activists do not prioritise them.)

3. The NHRC mis-prioritises cases of human rights violations

There are various forms of human rights violations. But most human rights activists and laymen agree that the most serious forms are those that violate human life and human dignity, such as murder and slavery. The next most serious forms, most of us will agree, are acts of severe physical abuses like torture and attacks that cause severe or permanent injuries. Violations against properties are not normally regarded as violations of human rights. (Or, in any case, if they are, then most will agree that they must be regarded as less serious than most forms of human rights violations.)

But the NHRC seems to take the priorities the other way around. The NHRC’s report takes keen interest in violations against properties (there are 39 instances of the word “properties” in the report), while glossing over cases of killings very quickly. The violence during 13-19 May 2010 accounts for 60% of those killed in the political violence of 2010. But the section on the violence of 13-19 May accounts for only 11 pages out of the report’s 88 pages.

While the NHRC devotes 5 pages to discussing the UDD’s unwarranted search inside Chulalongkorn hospital, the NHRC spends only one paragraph describing the events on 11 May 2010, in which 11 were killed. Likewise, only one paragraph is spent describing the events on 16 May, in which 8 were killed. And the events on the 19 May, in which 19 were killed, are given 5 paragraphs.

The structure of the report also shows where the NHRC’s priorities lie. The NHRC divides the report into 8 sections. All the events that happened during the 7 days from 13-19 May 2010, which resulted in about 60 civilian deaths, are compressed into one section, while another whole section is devoted to describing how the UDD’s protest had “caused troubles” and “violated the law” even before the government declared a state of emergency on 7 April.

4. The NHRC neglects to mention some serious cases of human rights violations

Not only does the NHRC try to play down human rights violations by the security forces, the NHRC also neglects to mention some cases of serious violations altogether. Interestingly, all these neglected cases involve the deaths of protesters.

The clash on 10 April 2010 left 27 people dead, five of whom were military officers. But the part of the NHRC’s report on this event was almost wholly devoted to discussing the officers’ deaths. The deaths of protesters were mentioned in only one sentence: “The deaths of UDD protesters are already in the judicial process. Therefore, it is not necessary to discuss them here” (Page 48). Interestingly, some other cases which are already in the judicial process but which the victims are security officers, are still discussed in detail by the NHRC. One example is the case of James Singsitthi, who is accused of firing an M79 grenade launcher at Saladaeng.

Similarly, the protest crackdown on 19 May and the prelude to it (during 13-19 May) caused about 60 civilian deaths. But the NHRC only mentioned those deaths very broadly in one sentence: “The events surrounding the UDD’s demonstration during 13-19 May 2010 resulted in 404 people injured and 51 killed”. (These figures are from an old report by Erawan Emergency Center. An updated report by the PIC2010 has identified 59 killed.) The NHRC gives no detail on any of these civilian deaths.

Altogether there are about 80 cases of civilian deaths omitted by the NHRC’s report (about 20 from 10 April, and about 60 during 13-19 May). In addition to this, there are over a thousand injured civilians, who are never mentioned in the NHRC’s report.

5. The NHRC neglects to mention some crucial facts

Not only does the NHRC neglect to mention certain cases of human rights violations, the NHRC also neglects to mention certain facts that are crucial in determining the scale of human rights violations by the security forces.

The NHRC’s report never mentioned that most of the protesters killed during April and May 2013 were killed by a single shot in the head or at one of the crucial points on the upper body. Neither does the NHRC mention that nearly all of the protesters had no weapon in their hands when they died, and none were clad in military-style black clothes (contrary to the CRES’s claim that many of those killed were the militant “men in black”).

The NHRC’s report also omits the facts that the military deployed snipers, and that the military used over 117,000 live bullets, including over 2,500 bullets for sniper rifles. (The numbers here are calculated by subtracting the number of bullets supplied to the security forces before the crackdown by the number of bullets returned after the crackdown.)

These facts have been published by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission Thailand (TRCT) and the People’s Information Center for Victims of April-May 2010 Political Violence (PIC2010), and widely publicised by some media outlets. It is unlikely that the NHRC are unaware of these facts.

6. The NHRC makes arbitrary guesses about the motivations behind acts of human rights violation

The NHRC makes prejudiced, arbitrary guesses about the motivations behind acts of human rights violation. Interestingly, the NHRC seems to be very optimistic when guessing the intentions behind the the security forces’ rights violations, but much less so when it comes to the actions of protesters’ and those associated with them.

For example, when describing the clash on 10 April 2010 between the security forces and protesters, together with the “unidentified armed militants (men in black)”, the NHRC states that the security forces had to shoot at protesters because “military officers […] needed to protect themselves and others from the approaching severe harm, which might cause death or injuries, and could not have used any other means of protection”. (Page 47)

As to the security forces’ shootings that killed over 20 civilians and injured hundreds, the NHRC believes optimistically that the military officers did it “unintentionally out of carelessness and miscalculation” (Page 48). But the optimism suddenly disappears when the NHRC describes the military officers’ deaths. The NHRC states that the deaths were caused by “a deliberate plan to murder the military officers”, and that whoever did it was “guilty of pre-planned killing” (Page 50).

7. The NHRC’s report is littered with misleading half-truths

The NHRC’s report contains many misleading half-truths. These misleading half-truths play down human rights violations by the security forces. Some do so by presenting cases of human rights violations in which both the security forces and protesters play important roles, as cases of violations perpetrated entirely by the protesters. Others do so by presenting clear cases of human rights violations by the security forces as cases of violations perpetrated by both the security forces and the protesters.

For example, on page 4 the NHRC writes: “The UDD expanded their protest area from Phan Fa Lilat Bridge on Ratchadamnoen Avenue to Ratchaprasong intersection and the area around it. In addition, the UDD rallied to other parts of Bangkok and the surrounding districts. This caused chaos, escalated the situation, and led to injuries and loss of lives in several events, such as the events around the Democracy Monument and Khok Wua intersection on 10 April 2010, the violence at Saladaeng intersection on Silom Road on 22 April 2010, the violence at the National Memorial on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road on 28 April 2010, and the UDD’s search inside Chulalongkorn hospital on 29 April 2010.” (Note: Despite the NHRC’s claim here, the UDD’s search of Chulalongkorn hospital did not cause any injury or death.)

In the narrative above, the NHRC suggests that the UDD’s moving protest site to Ratchaprasong intersection and rallying around Bangkok “escalated the situation” and “led to injuries and loss of lives” in several events in April 2010. In one sense, this is true: the injuries and deaths would not have happened had the UDD not expanded their demonstration. But the 1976 Thammasat University Massacre would not have happened had the students not held protests, and the deaths on 14 October 1973 would not have happened had there not been a mass rally. What is misleading about the NHRC’s narrative is its suggestion that the “injuries and loss of lives” were caused by the protesters, implying that the government and its security forces played no part in it.

In another example, the NHRC plays down the security forces’ violence by misleadingly presenting it as violence perpetrated by both the security force and the protesters. On page 56, the NHRC writes: “The results of the clash between UDD protesters and security forces in the mentioned event – in particular, the death of one military officer by gun shot and the injuries of some civilians and military officers – suggest that there were human rights violations against ordinary people, the security forces, and those who were killed.”

Here, instead of saying who committed human rights violations, the NHRC says vaguely that “there were human rights violations”, which resulted from “the clash between UDD protesters and security forces”. Readers can be forgiven for having an impression that “the death of one military officer by gun shot” was caused by protesters, since the NHRC’s statement encourages that impression. But the fact is that the one officer killed was Pvt Narongrit Sala, whose death was ruled by the criminal court to have been caused by friendly fire.

Vague and misleading statements like this occur throughout the NHRC’s report, especially when it comes to describing crimes committed by security personnel.

8. The NHRC uses euphemisms that misrepresent events

The NHRC consistently uses euphemistic phrases that misrepresent the main themes of events.

The NHRC adopts the CRES’ vocabulary, calling the May crackdown “asking for the area back” and calling the military’s encircling the protesters and advancing on them using live ammunitions before the crackdown, “tightening the grip on the area”. The former phrase is used 8 times in the report, and the latter phrase 9 times. The NHRC never mentions that 41 civilians, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed during the military’s process of “tightening the grip on the area”, and 18 were killed as a result of the military’s “asking for the area back”.

Moreover, the NHRC also invents their own euphemistic phrases. For example, the section on the May crackdown and its prelude during 13-19 May 2010 is called “The riot, the clash, and the vandalism against public and private properties during 13-19 May 2010”. Reading the section title, one can be forgiven for having no idea that the section is about a bloody crackdown which killed about 60 protesters, nearly all of whom were unarmed and killed in single shots aimed at the head and crucial points on the body. While the killing spree is played down, vandalism, which is relatively minor as a form of human rights violation (if it can be called a human rights violation at all), is emphasised. The word “crackdown”, which suggests that one side is more powerful and on the offensive, is omitted. And the word “clash”, which suggests an even-handed fight, is preferred.

Prach Panchakunathorn is a Thai journalist currently working for Voice TV.


Egypt looking depressingly like Iraq | Human Rights Watch

Egypt looking depressingly like Iraq | Human Rights Watch

Egypt looking depressingly like Iraq | Human Rights Watch

AUGUST 15, 2013
  • A soldier stands outside the burnt Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo on August 15, 2013.
    © 2013 Reuters

Erin Evers

I awoke at 7 a.m. on Wednesday to a frantic telephone call. A contact inside of Raba’a al-Adaweya, one of the two six-week-old Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins that took over two Cairo neighborhoods, was on the line. “It’s starting,” he told me. “We’re surrounded. They’re firing on us from three sides.”
I spent the rest of the day alternately seeking out the injured and trying to avoid becoming one of them. Dozens, if not hundreds, have been killed at Raba’a, at the Cairo University sit-in, and at flashpoints throughout Cairo and the rest of the country.
Society here seems to hang by a thread. Fighting continues and it is unclear who’s on what side. I spoke to a man injured at the Cairo University sit-in who said he and 25 others had come to fight the Brotherhood alongside police.
Checkpoints litter the city, some manned by the army or police, others by groups of men in civilian clothes reminiscent of the “neighborhood watches” who took matters into their own hands during Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. The country is polarized in a way I never imagined.
These scenes in an Egypt that I thought I knew remind me sadly of the place I spent the better part of the last year as a Human Rights Watch researcher: Iraq.
Iraq too is littered with checkpoints, far more numerous and permanent than in Cairo, and with bomb-scarred neighborhoods; radical Jihadist groups and security forces who commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. This is what I fear Egypt could become. There, divisions are entrenched: the sides are unable to divorce themselves from past grievances and ultimately choose violence over national reconciliation. Waking Thursday in Egypt, after a night of fires blazing in Cairo neighborhoods, a death tally over 500 and steadily rising, I fear Egypt has embarked on a similar path.
Wednesday could have been prevented. Since my return to Cairo at the end of June, Egypt’s military commanders and their supporters have employed a zero-sum stance that mimics Iraq’s leadership, particularly Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The statements of Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, and others have appeared in the past six weeks to represent a mentality in which political victory is predicated on forcing opponents to submit completely.
Rather than addressing crimes that individuals may have committed during the demonstrations – their abuse of suspected informants or use of firearms in clashes with residents – the Egyptian authorities’ strategy has been to demonize the Brotherhood as collectively responsible for “terrorism.” As in Iraq, Egyptian leaders portray themselves as seeking peaceful solutions, only to be forced to confrontation by the other side.
Even if the military and the Brotherhood wish to pull back from the brink at this point, it is not clear they are nimble enough. This is in large part thanks to the use by Egypt’s current rulers – like their Iraqi counterparts – of a framework of “terrorism” to describe non-violent sit-ins, rather than as legitimate peaceful protest, and now to disperse them accordingly. In his now infamous appearance before the Navy and Air Defense Academies on July 24, Gen. Sisi told Egyptians he wanted them to give their support to the army and police, warning that “if violence or terrorism are resorted to, the military and the police are authorized to confront that.” With this call, Sisi cemented the split that has Egypt divided along two poles: those who support army rule and those who oppose it. Egypt’s leaders avoided seeking a resolution to Egypt’s political crisis, instead resorting to brinkmanship with the Muslim Brotherhood’s equally hyperbolic leadership.
In Iraq, a similar discourse by political and military officials has led to an increasingly polarized society, leading the country back into vicious civil conflict, and directly causing many of the most intransigent human rights problems I documented there. This polarization has escalated since December 2012, when a frustrated Sunni population took to the streets to protest what they see as their disenfranchisement from Iraqi political life. Rather than acknowledge the legitimacy underlying their grievances, al-Maliki suggested that “Saddamists, terrorists and Qaida militants” were behind the protests.
Iraq’s approach has nowhere been more evident than in attacks on a protest camp in Hawija at the end of April.
About 1,000 people from the area had been there for more than three months to protest what they characterized as disenfranchisement from Iraq’s political process. Army and police fired on protesters, killing at least 50, claiming that they attacked in response to threats by armed people hiding in the protest.
The Iraqi authorities, when they weren’t justifying the attacks, announced they would investigate and formed several fact-finding committees, but the results have been zero accountability. Ditto for announced investigations into earlier attacks on protesters in Fallujah and Mosul.
In the last several weeks in Egypt, I’ve seen a hauntingly similar scenario: twice, before Wednesday, security forces fired on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi in response to what they claimed was provocation. There is ample evidence that security forces used brutally excessive force both times. In the first attack, army and police reportedly killed 51 people; in the second, central security forces, police, and men in civilian clothes are believed to have killed at least 80. The military said that one soldier and two police were killed in the first attack. No security forces died in the second.
Like authorities in Iraq after Hawija, Egypt’s current rulers denied responsibility for the killings. In April, the Iraqi defense minister, Saadoun Dulaimi, characterized Hawija protesters as “terrorists” and said, shortly before security forces opened fire, that the government should “let them be killed.” In December 2012, Maliki calledprotesters terrorists and threatened to “crush” them.
Fast forward to Egypt, July 8, the day of the attack that killed 51. “What excessive force?” said a military spokesman, Ahmed Mohamed Ali. “It would have been excessive force if we killed 300.”
On July 24, two days before the second attack, General al-Sisi called for mass demonstrations to support a crackdown on “terrorism and violence.” On July 27, the day after the attack, Interior Minister Ibrahim preposterously denied that security forces had “ever shot an Egyptian with live fire.” He accused the Brotherhood of exaggerating the death toll, despite ample documentation that most died of bullet wounds to their heads, necks and chests. On July 31, Egypt’s interim cabinet authorized the Interior Ministry to clear the sit-ins as a “threat to national security.”
The brutal disregard for the lives of opposition protesters in Egypt risks having the same effect as in Iraq, where the opposition has become increasingly radicalized. With al Qaeda exploiting Sunni anger in Iraq over the government’s refusal to meet their demands – claiming that the numerous attacks they carried out in the last several months were retribution for the Hawija killings – the gains that the “Awakening” made against the insurgency after 2007 are being undone.
In Egypt, leaders demonized the Brotherhood and incite a population more than willing to take the bait, thanks in part to the abuses Brotherhood leaders committed during their year in power. Some Brotherhood supporters said they see no peaceful way out, and have taken the bait, becoming more desperate and more extreme.
I spoke to numerous men and women at the Raba’a and Nahda sit-ins who had lost friends or relatives in the second attack. Many said it had made them more determined to “martyr” themselves. “Now I will stay here until my last drop of blood is shed,” a 22-year-old accountant told me.
In Egypt the level of political violence so far has not come close to that in Iraq. But the behavior and rhetoric of both sides is deeply worrying. If leaders continue to respond with brutality, the opposition may well become further radicalized. Subgroups already appear to be attacking security installations and churches throughout the country – again, a picture all too familiar to me from Iraq.
Egypt’s leaders can pull out of the vortex of violence by stopping not just the language of “us versus them,” but actions that appear to show limited, if any respect for the basic right to life of opposition supporters, to justify a fight to the death over who owns Egypt. Instead leaders need to convince the opposition they still have a stake in peaceful participation in society and the political process.
Erin Evers is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.

Rights at Stake in Olympic Leadership Race | Human Rights Watch

  • Workers head to work on construction sites, including the Central Olympic (Fisht) Stadium, as Russia prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi.
    © 2012 Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Human Rights Watch
  • Migrant workers at the construction site of Beijing’s National Stadium, also known as “the Bird’s Nest,” where the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games took place on August 8, 2008. The stadium was designed by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, in collaboration with the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron.
    © 2007 Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
Published in:

New York Times

Unless sponsors and franchise-holders like NBC, Coca-Cola, G.E., McDonalds and Visa want to risk being associated with the first officially homophobic Olympics, they must find their voices — before the next I.O.C. president is anointed.
On Sept. 10, members of the International Olympic Committee will vote for a new president for the first time in 12 years. The campaign for the I.O.C. presidency is a discreet event that does not attract much media coverage (how many of the six candidates can you name?), but if you care about human rights, the stakes are high. This may be the last chance for many years to reform the committee’s approach to repressive governments that seek to host the games. It is imperative that the committee elect a president willing to lead, not cave in, on this issue.
The 12-year term of the current president, Jacques Rogge of Belgium, will be remembered in large part for the glaring contradiction between the I.O.C.’s explicit vision of its lofty role in the world (as outlined in the rules and guidelines of its charter) and the fact that Mr. Rogge has been responsible for two Olympics with extensive human rights violations: the 2008 summer games in Beijing and the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, which start in less than six months.
To host the Olympics, governments and cities pledge not only to build sparkling new stadiums but also to uphold the I.O.C.’s “Fundamental Principles of Olympism”: respect for human dignity and press freedom, and a rejection of “any form of discrimination.” But the I.O.C. under Mr. Rogge has failed to enforce its own rules.
The 2008 Beijing games, which cost an estimated $40 billion to stage, led to a host of rights violations, including abuses of migrant workers who were building Olympic infrastructure and a harsh clampdown on civil society and media, with punishment (including imprisonment) for those trying to protest.
Now the I.O.C. is preparing to stage another Olympics in a host country, Russia, that almost appears to be taunting organizers and sponsors by flagrantly flouting its pledge. Starting in 2008, my organization, Human Rights Watch, has documented myriad Russian abuses associated with preparation for the Olympics. These include government harassment and intimidation of activists and journalists, abuses of migrant workers building all the major Olympic venues (including the media center) and forced evictions of some families without compensation. Some migrant workers who tried to complain have been detained.
Over the past year, Russia has also introduced repressive laws targeting certain nonprofit organizations as “foreign agents.” With raids, threats and intimidation, the crackdown has been the most severe of its kind in the post-Soviet era. Central to this campaign is a new law targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgenderpeople. All these efforts are wholly at odds with the Olympic ideal, as expressed in its charter, of “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Russian authorities are apparently counting on the I.O.C. to keep quiet again.
The shame here is that the I.O.C. can and has used its considerable leverage to improve the conduct of host nations. Countries with repressive governments often seek to host the Olympics to improve their global reputation, and only the I.O.C. can make the Olympics happen. In the lead-up to the 1988 summer games in Seoul, public protests against the military dictatorship escalated in South Korea, prompting the I.O.C. to press strongly for a democratic transition. While I.O.C. pressure was not the only factor in bringing about change, democratic elections were in fact conducted before the games.
Starting in 2000, the I.O.C. has attempted to ensure that the Olympics are “green,” and as a result, it now audits not only such matters as sports venue completion but also environmental impact. Because of the bribery scandals uncovered at the Atlanta Games in 1996 and Salt Lake City in 2002, it also vets corruption. There is no reason the new I.O.C. president could not issue a mandate to strictly assess the human rights records of bidding countries and monitor a selected host country’s progresstoward improving that record.
The election of the I.O.C. president is determined by the committee’s 98 voting members (mostly sports federation leaders and members of various royal families). Only 16 are women, which may help account for why there are no female candidates. To date, only one candidate, the financier Richard Carrión of Puerto Rico, has publicly condemned Russia’s discriminatory laws and environment. The election is not designed for serious reform.
Thus whoever is elected cannot be counted on to make the necessary changes himself without pressure from outside. Nominally a nonprofit, the I.O.C. is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, earning its money through franchising, television and sponsorship rights. Before another I.O.C. president is selected, the corporate sponsors who make the Olympics possible should insist that the I.O.C. president enforce the committee’s own rules about human rights. Unless sponsors and franchise-holders like NBC, Coca-Cola, G.E., McDonalds and Visa want to risk being associated with the first officially homophobic Olympics, they must find their voices — before the next I.O.C. head is anointed.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, edited “China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights.”

Making Revolution Happen

from original


Making Revolution Happen

By | Wednesday, August 7, 2013 |

Christopher Gunness conducted clandestine radio interviews with several Burmese students and activists that were broadcast to millions of Burmese in 1988. (Photo:


Award-winning journalist Christopher Gunness, a former BBC correspondent, was in Burma during the nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988. He conducted clandestine radio interviews with several Burmese students and activists that were broadcast to millions of Burmese, and the military government accused the reports of triggering the August uprising. Fifteen years later, in 2003, Gunness remained blacklisted from entering Burma and was considered a top enemy of the junta. The Irrawaddy caught up with him that year via email and asked about his reporting experiences from 1988. Now, as the country commemorates the 25th anniversary of the uprising, we look back at what he had to say.

QuestionWhen you worked in Burma as a reporter in 1988, did you get the sense that the sporadic student protests early in the year would flare up into a nationwide uprising?

Answer: I was in no doubt at all that Burma was a bomb waiting to explode; the only questions in my mind were, “When and what would be the trigger?” In 1987 there had been sporadic trouble because of the demonetization, and the students were clearly aggrieved during the early months of ‘88. I firmly believe Ne Win also felt that huge problems were going to flare up, unless he acted. I’m not suggesting that he was acting without self-interest, but in a pragmatic way, to protect his own interests. I believe he knew there would be major challenges to his rule unless he did something bold—which is exactly what he did, in announcing multi-party democracy and a pluralist economy. He recognized the problem, but like the administrations he spawned, had neither the will, ability, decency or imagination to find a solution.

QYou interviewed female students who said they were raped in prison, but the government later exposed the charges as a total fabrication, and many activists back those claims. Do you still believe the stories of your interviewees? How did it affect your work as a professional reporter?

A: I have no doubt at all that the women I met had been raped. Their body language was unmistakable, and having met rape victims—subsequently in the Balkans—there are no doubts in my mind at all. The treatment of these women has also been confirmed subsequently by several unimpeachable sources. As far as government accusations are concerned, nothing the generals say will ever affect my work, except to make me more determined to keep them accountable to world opinion, if not to the people of Burma itself. I have been the subject of frequent vitriolic attacks and I take this as the highest possible compliment. It is a continued sign that my reporting is accurate and that the truth continues to irk the Burmese generals and those in East Asian governments who continue to support them.

QWhat frustrations and regrets did you experience working as a journalist covering Burma from Rangoon?

A: The greatest frustration and regret is for my friends in Burma who have suffered so much. And I regret the fact that the international community has done so little to promote change. There has always been a cause of greater interest to the men who really run the world, in Washington, European capitals and in places like Tokyo and Beijing. Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or wherever has always forced Burma off the international agenda. But I think things are changing, and since Iraq, toleration for rogue states is diminishing. And while I find the methodology of the hawks in Washington problematic, if their agenda of promoting American liberal values all over the world is followed to its logical conclusion, this can only be of benefit, ultimately to Burma.

QAre you still blacklisted from visiting Burma? Have you tried to return? Do you want to? If you could, what would you do?

A: Yes, I am banned. I have had it made clear to me by ambassadors in London that a visa application would not be successful. However, I have been across the border through Thailand on one occasion, but it is very frustrating not being able to go to Rangoon. If I could visit, I would be extremely careful about who I spoke to, as I have little doubt that the military intelligence would arrest anyone talking to me. If I could go, I’d try to report on aspects of Burma that touch peoples’ lives rather than bang on about democracy and human rights. Although human rights are important, I would like to tell some human stories about how people have survived through 15 years of oppression. The story of modern Burma is a story about the enduring nature of the human spirit. The struggle for democracy is only one aspect of that.

QBoth dissidents and the regime acknowledge that your reports during the build-up to the uprising played a key role in triggering the public’s outrage. How do you feel now that the name Christopher Gunness has become part of the 8.8.88 legend? What was your role as a reporter?

A: The truth is that I feel very embarrassed for several reasons. Firstly, I think it is wrong. People were already outraged, not by my reporting, but by what the government was doing. To suggest that what outraged over 40 million people was the reportage of a very inexperienced BBC reporter is to miss the point about what was happening and to diminish the role of the Burmese people in those events. The Burmese people themselves rose up. They are the true heroes of 1988. All I did was report on it. Secondly, to overplay my role in the ’88 events is to play into the hands of the generals. It is all too easy for a corrupt, inefficient and greedy government to blame a single reporter. It suggests that the problem is not them, but a foreigner—a classic but crass attempt to find an external scapegoat. In addition, it subtly plays on old fears and memories in East Asia about British colonialism. What I did was not neo-colonial; however, much the government would like to believe that the BBC has a specific agenda in Burma. It does not. It is my role as a reporter and the BBC’s role as an international broadcaster, to hold a mirror up to Burma. If the generals don’t like what they see, they have only themselves to blame.

QWhat is your assessment of the current situation in Burma? Do you see any parallels with 1988?

A: When a place is an information black hole, it is almost impossible to say anything meaningful about it. How can one assess the situation in Burma, when the government controls information so tightly and where the opposition isn’t free to operate and talk to journalists? But I do think the situation is different now. In ‘88 there was a genuine question mark over the decency of the army and about whether the army would bow to the overwhelming will of the people who it served. That question mark was dramatically removed when in September ‘88, the army showed that it was prepared to slaughter thousands of people, including unarmed women and children. And today, that remains the reality. So I think it unlikely that there could be a popular uprising like 1988. But on the positive side, I think the international climate is changing. US-led action in Iraq and Afghanistan does serve notice to tyrants everywhere that they could be next. And once the argument shifted away from weapons of mass destruction to the human rights record of Saddam Hussein, it was easier to hope that those who violate international humanitarian law, like the generals in Rangoon, will be held to account.

QIn commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 8.8.88, can you share some of your memories of Burma’s struggle for democracy?

A: I remember the kindness and bravery of the Burmese—those who contacted me clandestinely and, in spite of the all-pervasive military intelligence, risked their own lives to help me. And of course I remember my Burmese friends who have suffered and died.

QDo you have any words for the people of Burma?

A: That’s a bit grand, isn’t it? But if I have a message at all, it is that no suffering is ever in vain. Looking back through history, even the mightiest of empires, with their lofty values and noble institutions, come to an end. And the Burmese regime is anything but mighty and lofty. It is bankrupt, literally and intellectually. The other thing I would want to stress is that though it must often feel horribly isolated to be Burmese, the outside world is actually looking. People are recording your suffering and the deeds of the Burmese generals, and when justice comes, as it inevitably will, the world will be prepared.

This interview was originally published by The Irrawaddy on September 1, 2003.


One Response to Making Revolution Happen

  1. This is an excellent interview and Gunness is a decent truth speaker – a true hero – However, the interview, though for the history books, is already ten years old – Where is he now? Why did he leave BBC? What about that woman who was head of BBC Burmese and fired allegedly because she was a double agent – I have it on the best authority from an international correspondent via a close friend that she is now on board of Prospect Burma – What’s this?? You should have tried for a new interview of Gunness – It’s your job.