Burma: the case

Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party frowns on tourism to Burma, but provides guides for fact-finding missions. David Shanks talks to a groups of exiled activists

Exiled activists from Burma who are campaigning internationally for the illegal repressive military rule of their country to be at least discussed at the UN Security Council in October have received encouragement in Dublin from the Government and from other politicians.

A three-man delegation of opposition politicians and a trade union leader were pleased with a "very constructive" meeting with the Minister of State for Overseas Development and Human Rights, Conor Lenihan.

Lenihan said afterwards that his department was "hugely supportive" of the campaign to democratise Burma and free it from the rule of the military junta, especially as the tenth anniversary of the first incarceration of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi approaches on 24 October. He said the Government was willing to fund human rights activists on the ground in Burma, provided the proper applications were made.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy was overwhelmingly elected in 1990 but the result remains ignored by the military regime, which is well known for human rights abuses including forced labour of men, women and children to build the country's infrastructure.

Dr Maung Maung, general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions Burma (FTUB) described forced labour as a tool to keep people under continuous threat of terror. A farmer on his way to the fields might be stopped by troops and told: "Come with us". Then he could find himself working on government building schemes living in army barracks for up to six months with no compensation.

The normally respected traditional role of village head-man or woman was something people were "desperate not to do" because they would become answerable to the military, he said.

Minister Lenihan told the visitors Ireland's new permanent UN representative, David Cooney, would press for a Burma debate at the security council. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, had already raised the issue at the General Assembly in September.

Nor was the Government going to support any relaxation of the EU's ban on travel visas to senior members of the Burmese junta, he added. (Pressure has been coming from France and Germany, which have commercial interest in Burma, for a "calibrated" relaxation of the ban.)

October is seen as a window of opportunity at the Security Council, when Romania holds the chair. Its centrist government also supports the Burma cause. When the chair passes to Britain in November a debate is less likely on a recent initiative by former Czech president Vaclav Havel and Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

The Havel-Tutu plan calls for UN intervention and restoration of the democratically-elected government, access to UN senior representatives (who have been barred from entry), and release of all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest.

There are currently 1,162 political prisoners in Burma, 14 of them MPs-elect, estimated Bo Hla-Tint, leader of the delegation. He is also an MP-elect and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. He is chairman of the finance committee of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma. However, in spite of his government roles he now works in Washington.

Arguing that the legal case for intervention is definitive, the Havel-Tutu report says that the regime has violated every criterion the council has used elsewhere to justify intervention.

These include overthrowing democracy, violent conflict between government and ethnic groups, widespread human rights abuses, drugs production and cross-border trafficking and outflow of refugees. Burma has about 250,000 internally displaced people.

Dr Maung Maung operates from over the Burmese border in Thailand. "We are all scattered," he said. Of the MPs four are in the US, three in Thailand, four in India, and others in the Netherlands. Dr Maung Maung was also one of the delegation that met the minister, addressed the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee and the ICTU's Global Solidarity Committee.

The Burmese opposition is seeking to strengthen civil society in Burma, and would like to expand previous Irish Government-funded initiatives which helped train Burmese leaders in civil administration and conflict resolution. The third delegation member, Washington lobbyist Hlwan Moe, has already studied in Dublin with Government funding.

Though freedom of association is denied, Dr Maung Maung painted a surprising picture of a high level of underground trade union and other activity within Burma, saying his federation was in alliance with about 50 organisations.

Dr Maung Maung said there were also hundreds of thousands of people living in their own autonomous areas and up to 5,000 fighters in rebel armies. (Most of these are on ceasefire at present.)

He said his federation had been working since 1992 with the UN's International Labour Organisation, which now has an office in the Burmese capital, Rangoon: "The ILO used to be a paper tiger but now it is walking with us."

FTUB encouragement of workers to take their grievances to the ILO office had met with success. "So the regime is very angry with us," he added. But help was needed to train local leaders and teachers. Another need was for communications equipment, including satellite phones.

Clearly frustrated with the effectiveness of the international community, Dr Maung Maung stressed the role of the international community of trade unions. His federation was working with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which is campaigning vigorously on the Burma issue. (The ICTU is an affiliate.) And unions in Australia, Japan, and the US had provided Burma offices.

Burma has been a popular tourism destination. Asked at the ICTU committee whether the opposition frowned on tourism now Dr Maung Maung said yes it did – but not fact-finding visits. He added: "If you want to come we can provide a tourist guide."