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  Issue No 106 Official Organ of LaborNet 10 August 2001  




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In Exile

Burmese's government in exile's Minister for Justice U Thein Oo talks about a struggle for democracy that has become a test of international solidarity.


U Thein Oo

What is your story about how you came to be Justice Minister in Burma's Government in exile, the Washington based, National Government of the Union of Burma?

I was elected in the 1990 Parliamentary elections as a representative of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Our party won a landslide victory with 82 per cent of the popular vote, winning 392 of the 485 seats contested. Our General Secretary is Nobel Peace Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time of the election, in fact she still is today, and the military regime then called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) for spurious reasons, barred her from standing in the election.

The regime refused to transfer power to the NLD the winning party and prevented us the 485 elected MPs from convening the People's Parliament. Due to the frustrating situation of having won an election and not being able to take up our mandate, a ten person committee of elected MPs including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, convened a Committee Representing the People's Parliament (CRPP). This was done with the express authority of 251 MPs.

Prior to this in 1990, we the elected members decided to establish what came to be known as a parallel government, and we did this in Karen state within Burma - near the Thai border. In fact it was to be the government, until the transfer of power took place. The military dictatorship that is SLORC and now the SPDC exercise power unlawfully and illegitimately according to both Burmese domestic law and international law.

Our mission was to inform the international community of the real situation in Burma and to seek the international community's support. We did this from our base in the Karen State, being forced to flee yet again in 1995 after the Burmese military overran the Karen National Union headquarters. Most of us went into Thailand and some eventually went overseas, and an NCGUB office was established in the U.S.A. at Washington D.C.

As Burma is such a closed country how do you communicate with your colleagues inside?

We have to use messengers - mainly traveling across the border, on foot, to communicate with each other. Some means we obviously cannot discuss.

The impression in recent months has been the regime is looking to lift the house arrest on Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi and sounding more open to a move to democracy. Is that what you see happening?

So long as she remains under house arrest you cannot talk about a move towards democracy. She is not allowed outside her compound and she has no right to speak to her own party members. We can see a little improvement, because of the international pressure that is building, particularly with the International Labour Organisation's resolution that imposes sanctions against the regime, but as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself says, it's not just her: there are still about 2,000 political prisoners in our country, with only about 150 have been released. So there are still many people who are being held, slave labour is still endemic as is human rights violations, particularly against the ethnic people, with women and girls being raped by soldiers, with villagers being forced to be porters for the army, and entire villages are relocated.

People in Burma are scared, fearful to speak to their families and friends. So people talk about some good things that the regime are doing, but most of the prisoners they released should not have been imprisoned anyway, and their gaol terms had expired. Why should we reward the military dictatorship for simply undoing what they should not have done anyway. When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in a position to speak to us and the international community then we can rightly judge whether or not there are any real moves towards democracy in Burma. Besides the SPDC talk about moving to disciplined democracy, what does this mean, you either have democracy or you don't, no matter what country or nationality, or ethnic background, or race, or culture you are from.

Do you think the recent moves by the ILO to impose penal provisions against Burma have had an impact on the regime?

Yes, an enormous impact. The ILO decision is very important and very effective to change the attitude of the regime - they do listen to the international community because they desperately crave legitimacy. they can only get this through the international community, by which they stand condemned, as the United Nations General Assembly resolutions for the past ten years demonstrate, plus the resolutions from the United Nations Commission of Human Rights, that also condemn the military regime for gross human rights violations. The UN did not appoint a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Violations because the military respected and promoted human rights, quite the contrary. They really don't care about opinion inside Burma because they think they can control the people, (they can to a large degree their actions but the internal resistance has been sometimes subtle, at other times direct, but constant and anyway they don't control their hearts, but outside they have little control over. The ILO decision is very dangerous because they can't control it - and they need business investment. Even before the ILO decision the fact that they have foreign reserves below US$50 million, the kyat, local currency, has an official exchange rate of 6 kyats to US$1 and has skyrocketed to up to 900 kyats to US$1 at times, and it is the unofficial rate that prevails, their gross mishandling of the economy which has been criticised inside by business people and ASEAN, that has marked them as a pariah and risky regime.

If ILO activity stops investment, it becomes very dangerous for the regime because people inside Burma hear about it and see that people can stand up to them. Inside Burma there are no trade unions- they control this.

The actual ILO resolution calls on member countries not to deal with the Burmese regime - what is the extent of western companies currently operating inside Burma?

There are many foreign companies, with Singapore the largest investor, and some Australian companies as well, also some big infrastructure projects - like roads, bridges, electricity and mining. There are also travel companies that are making money from trading in Burma, including QANTAS or its subsidiary. Some companies have however decided not to go into Burma until the political system is more democratic, others have gone in and left due to human rights considerations and others have left after realising how difficult it is to do business there.

What constructive steps could Australia workers take to help the people in Burma?

The main objective is seek the assistance of the international community and to bring pressure to bear on the countries that want to treat Burma's SPDC like a regular government and also to lobby those multinational companies operating inside Burma that benefit directly or indirectly by the system of slave labour, thus ignoring the ILO decision. There is also a United Nations resolutions that I have spoken about. It's fine to pass resolutions on the international stage - but they need to be implemented to have any real meaning. It's very important for our country and our people. I would like to ask the Australian people to follow this position.

Other practical actions I would ask the trade union movement, its members and the Australian Government and community to take include the following.

First, get the Australian Government to immediately cease funding its human rights training programme that it currently has operating (AusAID has contracted it out to Monash University's Castan Centre. The Australian Government sees it as a positive engagement, but its only positive for the military regime that uses it show that they are concerned about human rights. It is a waste of the Australian community's money.

Secondly, support the ILO resolution by asking the Australian Government as an ILO member to comply with the resolution.

Thirdly, write to the ILO and tell them that you support their action against Burma and that you don't want the resolution lifted until it can be independently confirmed that the practices of slave labour and porterage have stopped.

Fourthly, support the United Nations General Assembly resolutions regarding Burma that call for a number of actions by the military regime including the cessation of human rights violations and respect for the 1990 election mandate, etc.

We also need supporters to write to both the Prime Minister John Howard and the Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer asking them to support the United Nations General Assembly and other United Nations bodies resolutions regarding Burma and also ask them both to take positive action to facilitate the restoration of democracy and the rule of law to Burma. Ask them to also give support to the 'talks' process by not accepting that the military is moving towards negotiations until Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of her own volition is able to say that talks are happening, etc.

Also write to those Australian companies who are doing business in Burma, pointing out that they are profiting by the use of slave labour, and ask them to withdraw their operations from Burma, until democracy and the rule of law is restored.

And they can write to the three most senior figures in the military SPDC Senior General Than Shwe, General Maung Aye and Lt-General Khin Nyunt, calling up upon them to cease their practice of slave labour and porterage, to cease all human rights violations, to immediately release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Aung Shwe (NLD President) and U Tin Oo (NLD Vice-President) from house arrest, and all MPs and other political prisoners unconditionally.

Work with the Trade Union movement in Australia who know what is going on and involved in a global campaign.

I know this is a lot, but anything thing you can do no matter how small can make a big difference to the lives of my fellow country men and women, and to giving dignity to all of us.

I would like to thank the Mr John Roberston NSW Labour Council Secretary and Ms Sharan Burrow President of the ACTU for the wonderful support that they are giving to the people of Burma. Given their already huge responsibility to their own people, I on behalf of the democracy movement am even more grateful.

One day not two far away, I hope to stand side by side with our friends in the Australian community to work to improve the loves of all of us in this vibrant region of ours.


U Thein Oo is Justice Minister NCGUB, Chair of the Burma Lawyers' Council and Co-ordinator of the Human Rights Documentation Unit


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 106 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: In Exile
Burmese's government in exile's Minister for Justice U Thein Oo talks about a struggle for democracy that has become a test of international solidarity.
*  Politics: A National Disgrace
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis gives his take on the workers entitlements issue and its mismanagement by the Howard Government.
*  E-Change: 2.2 The Information Organisation
Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel look at how network technologies will change the way organizations operate in the Information Age.
*  Media: The Fine Print
Mark Hebblewhite looks at how the major dailies handled the Tri-Star dispute and finds that the story really does depend on the telling.
*  Human Rights: A People Besieged
Labor MLC Janelle Saffin, an active supporter of the pro-Democracy movement in Burma, sets out the issues behind the ILO sanctions.
*  International: Postcard From Brazil
The CFMEU’s Phil Davey reports on a rural movement that puts our National Farmers Federation to shame.
*  History: Indonesia Calling
They needed no resolutions. Soldiers and workers who did not know one another moved together, the black ban started to reach out across the harbour from the noisy, smoke-filled room.
*  Solidarity: On the Frontline
Australian trade unionists are providing practical help for the Burmese through projects funded by APHEDA-Union Aid Abroad.
*  Satire: Skase 'Too Ill' to Fly Home for Burial
Spanish authorities have deemed Christopher Skase too ill to return to Australia for his own funeral.
*  Review: Living Silence
In these extracts from her new book, Christina Fink goes inside Burma to find a world where military repression is slowly crushing a people.

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