Ben Rogers – Faith and Hope in the Fight for Freedom: Stories from the Frontlines of Human Rights Advocacy

Ben Rogers is Advocacy Officer for South Asia at Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW)
Seminar on Wednesday 31 May 2007                                                 

GO TO DISCUSSION


What I will do is to use the time I have to tell a few stories from some of the places in which I have been working to set the scene, and to try to be what Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) seeks to be – a ‘voice for the voiceless’. I am not going to go into details of politics or theology in this part of the evening, but I have no doubt that you will ask some challenging political, theological and social questions afterwards – and I shall endeavour to answer those.

The title of my talk is Faith and Hope in the Fight for Freedom. Before I go into some of the countries and situations I should like to bring to your attention, I want to set the scene, in a perhaps slightly unorthodox way, by quoting from Bob Dylan some words, taken from his song ‘Blowing in the Wind’, which pose some fundamental questions for us in this room but also for society at large:

    How many years can some people exist
    before they are allowed to be free? 
    How many times can a man turn his head
    and pretend that he just doesn’t see?
    How many ears must one man have
    before he can hear people cry?
    How many deaths would it take till he knows
    that too many people have died?

I do not know if you are aware that persecution of Christians – by no means the only issue I want to address this evening, but the major focus of the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide – is a major and growing phenomenon around the world. It is believed that over two hundred million Christians around the world, in over sixty countries, face persecution, discrimination and restrictions of one form or another. They face threats from all sides, from extremists of other religions, from authoritarian governments, from particular elements in society – especially Islamic fundamentalists in places like Pakistan. Christians are currently under pressure not only in Pakistan but also in Indonesia, by Hindu nationalism in India, by what can only be described as ‘militant Buddhism’ (a contradiction in terms) in Sri Lanka, and by authoritarian regimes in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Burma – the latter of which will be the major focus of my remarks this evening. CSW is a Christian organisation, and we therefore believe we have a particular responsibility to speak up for Christians facing persecution because, if we do not, few others will. We believe, however, that our advocacy should not end there, and that we should take up the call to be a voice for all voiceless people who are suffering oppression and injustice.

I have personal experience of Burma, East Timor, and partially of China – I lived in Hong Kong for few years and travelled into China many times –, but I work also on Sri Lanka and Pakistan. I will not attempt to cover all these countries here. I am going to focus briefly on Pakistan and then predominantly on Burma. However, if you have questions on the other countries mentioned – Sri Lanka, East Timor, China – I am happy to address those in the discussion afterwards.

Pakistan is a country where religious minorities, women and also many ordinary Muslims are suffering because of the rise of extremism. Perhaps the greatest cause of injustice in Pakistan is a law introduced by the dictator who ruled Pakistan through most of the 1970s and 1980s, General Zia-ul-Haq. This is known as the ‘Blasphemy Law’, according to which the witness of one man alone – usually a Muslim man, but it does not have to be so – accusing a person of having said something blasphemous against the Prophet Mohammed or of having desecrated the Koran is sufficient for the accused to be arrested by the police, imprisoned and put on trial. The ultimate penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet is the death sentence. Nobody has actually been executed by the state, but, in the eyes of the extremists, persons accused of this are marked for life, so that even if acquitted they remain targets for extremists and have to spend the rest of their lives in hiding.

The law is frequently used against religious minorities, and particularly Christians, but it is also often used by Muslims against each other, often for aims completely unrelated to religious matters. For instance, a shopkeeper who wants to achieve a monopoly quickly may accuse a rival of having said something blasphemous in order to have him imprisoned. As far as I am aware, in all known blasphemy cases the charges are completely fabricated. I do not know of anybody who has actually said something blasphemous or deliberately desecrated the Koran, although there are instances in which people have been charged because they have accidentally damaged a Koran. That leads us to the heart of the injustice of that law: it is completely lacking in any regard for intent, and it fails also to weight the burden of proof – the accusation of one man alone is enough, and that has brought about huge injustice in the country. rogers_t01

In addition to the injustice that the Blasphemy Law itself causes, it has also fostered a climate of intolerance and of extremism. [picture_01] ‘Is it a crime to be a Christian?’ – this was written on the wall of a burnt-out building of a village called Shantinagar, which was the target of a major attack against the Christian community a few years ago. There had been subsequent attacks on other Christian areas, and right now there is a community of five hundred Christians in a town called Charsadda in the North-West Frontier Province who were recently given ten days to convert to Islam with a deadline on 17 May. They were warned that, if they did not convert, they would face death. I have been in constant contact with our sources on the ground who have been with this community, and on 17 May – the day of the deadline – I phoned our contact in Pakistan to find out what the latest was and he was absolutely desperate, saying that the Pakistani authorities were not taking this issue seriously enough and that they had simply provided one policeman at the church. He pleaded with me to raise this issue with the British Foreign Office, the United States State Department, the European Union and other governments, so I immediately went to the ‘phone.

Something I should like to mention here – and this may be something to develop in our discussion later – is the huge difference of approach between the United States State Department and the British Foreign Office. It is astonishing how dependent these issues are in the Foreign Office upon attitudes of individual desk officers or diplomats either in the country concerned or in London. I could not believe my ears when the Pakistan officer at the British Foreign Office used this expression, ‘There is nothing we can do; this is an internal matter for Pakistan and we cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another country’. I said to the officer that all we were asking for was that the British High Commissioner in Islamabad might encourage the Pakistani authorities to provide proper security for the Christian community in this town. She replied that there was nothing they could do, but that she would forward the communication to Islamabad for their information. ‘Five hundred people may be killed tomorrow for your information’, I thought, but I restrained myself frogers_t02rom adding this aloud. This highlights one of the problems we face in dealing with our own government. The State Department, on the contrary, has an office for ‘International Religious Freedom’ and my contact already knew about the situation and assured that they were monitoring it closely and they were trying to do what they could.

This is by way of an introduction to the situation in Pakistan. I mentioned that many of the people who have been charged with blasphemy, even when acquitted, have had to go into hiding. [picture_02] This man, Aslam Masih, has been released from prison but the extremists are quite literally hunting him down, and he has to move from one house to another to stay safe. Another problem that women generally and, in particular, women and young girls in the religious minorities have to face in Pakistan is that of sexual violence. I am sad to say that the seven-year old girl that you see here [picture_03] wrogers_t03as brutally raped and tortured a couple of years ago. I met her after that attack and she was completely traumatised. Her mother said that she had thought she was dead, although eventually she did survive. Another twelve-year old girl was recently kidnapped, told to convert to Islam, and when she refused she was moved from house to house to be gang-raped and each time she was told: ‘If you convert to Islam, we will stop doing this’. She finally managed to escape. Her story is not unusual in Pakistan.

How do we deal with some of these issues? Besides calling the Foreign Office or the State Department, we try to be pro-active. We took a Member of Parliament with us a couple of years ago to Islamabad and we had high-level meetings, including one with the Prime Minister of Pakistan. We will continue to raise these issues directly with the Pakistani government as well as with our own government. In the case of a country like Pakistan, where a flourishing civil society exists, it is possible to develop a dialogue with the government and to raise these issues.

I turn now to Burma which is very different from Pakistan in many ways, not least because it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to develop a meaningful dialogue with the regime. While in Pakistan there are opportunities to influence the government and to discuss crucial issues, in Burma it is much more difficult. I describe it as a nation with fifty million people living in a giant prison without walls, ruled brogers_t04y an illegal military regime. I say ‘illegal’ because it held elections in 1990 and they were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy, led by the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and yet the regime retains its grip on power. Most of those who were elected in 1990 are now either in prison or in exile. Aung San Suu Kyi is in her twelfth year of house arrest, renewed just a few days ago. There are more than 1,200 political prisoners, and the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. It is an Orwellian regime, whose extraordinary propaganda is emitted also in English – quite astonishingly, as one might rather expect them to prefer hiding it from the world. This was the ‘warm greeting’ that I received when I went to Rangoon last year [picture_04]: ‘Tatmadaw (which is the name of the army) and the people, cooperate to crush all those harming the union’. Aung San Suu Kyi, as I mentioned, remains under house arrest – the world’s only Nobel Laureate currently in detention.

rogers_t05Despite all of that, there are many signs of courageous dissent and people who, in various ways, show resistance to the regime. One example is a wonderful group of comedians in Mandalay, known as the ‘Moustache Brothers’ [picture_05], who are no longer allowed to perform publicly in Burmese, but they are still permitted to perform in English in their own homes – perhaps as a token effort suggesting to foreigners that there is a certain degree of freedom of speech. I went along to a performance, and it was both highly entertaining and very inspiring. Several of them have spent long periods of time in jail.

In relation to the forced conscription of child soldiers [picture_06], this is a boy who at the age of 11 was standing at a bus stop in Rangoon en route to visiting his aunt. He was picked up by a truck-load of soldiers who grabbed him and told him he had to join the armrogers_t06y. When I met him three years later he had managed to escape. I asked him if he was given a choice whether to join the army or not, and his answer was simply that his choice was either to join the army or to go to jail. He did finally escape, and he said that the treatment in the Burmese army was horrendous. The words he left me with were: ‘Life in the Burma army is like hell’. He escaped in the knowledge that if he was caught, he would probably be killed, but he said, ‘I did not want to live anymore’. Thankfully he did survive the escape and he is now in safety in Thailand.

Burma is a predominantly Buddhist nation, and it is a nation where ordinary people of different religions live in peace and in harmony with each other. Traditionally there have not been problems in the relations between people of different religious backgrounds. However, it is a nation where the military regime uses Buddhism as a political tool to suppress others, and their distorted use of Buddhism is surely far from consistent with what I know of authentic Buddhist teaching. It is essentially a fascist regime, one of whose slogans is, ‘One race, one language, one religion’ – the ‘one religion’ being Buddhism. It is not just intrinsically intolerant rogers_t07of other religions , but also of Buddhists who do not subscribe to its own interpretation of Buddhism. Many Buddhist monks are currently in jail. rogers_t09rogers_t08

Christians and Muslims, however, are particularly targeted. I published a report a couple of months ago called Carrying the Cross which deals with these issues. The situation in the country varies from region to region. One could go to Rangoon, see churches open and functioning, and might think there is little, if any, problem. But even in Rangoon, under the surface, Christians do face problems. They face restrictions on their activities, and discrimination. It is very difficult for Christians to get promotion in government services. Admittedly, the climate they face in urban areas, although subtly insidious, is not violent. In some of the ethnic areas, however, particularly in the Chin and the Karen areas, they do face explicit and often violent religious persecution, resulting in the destruction of churches and crosses, in forced conversions and coercive acts such as being forced to build Buddhist pagodas in the place of crosses [picture_07]. This is the Catholic cathedral in Rangoon [picture_08], and this one of the many Baptist churches in Rangoon [picture_09].

The regime did not seem to like my report, and that was not unexpected in itself, but what was perhaps surprising was how much attention they paid to it. For about two weeks, The New Light of Myanmar (the State-run newspaper) published every day full-page statements condemning the report and Christian Solidarity Worldwide and refuting my allegations. Several of my friends from Burma confirmed that the government did pay a lot of attention to it. We are somehow grateful to them, for if they had not acted as publicity agents many people in Burma would not have become aware of these efforts.

Let me turn now, in the final section of what I should like to share with you, to what is perhaps the most important element of the situation in Burma, and possibly the most forgotten. On top of political prisoners, suppression of democracy and use of child soldiers, there is what I believe amounts to a form of genocide taking place against many ethnic groups. There are too many ethnic groups in Burma to list individually here. Broadly speaking, rogers_t10rogers_t11however, the Karen, the Mon and the Shan are the major groups in the eastern part of Burma; the Chin on the western border with India; the Kachin on the northern border with China; the Arakan and the Rohingya, which are mainly Muslim people, on the border with Bangladesh. I have been to almost all of those borders, apart from that with Bangladesh, and these people are facing horrendous crimes against humanity: destruction of their villages, forced labour, and the use of rape and killing.

Many of the Karen people are Christian. Here we have a picture of a church in the jungle [picture_10]. This is a picture of what was a church [picture_11], which has been burnt down and destroyed.

I have also been twice to the Chin people on the India-Burma border. (I am pleased to see here this evening Dr. Desmond Kelly who has a long history of involvement with the Chin and is far more versed in their story than I.) The area of the Chin people is one of the poorest areas in Burma, lacking investment, health-care and infrastructure. They face persecution on three grounds: religion, ethnicity and politics. They are mainly Christians and feel very forgotten. They told us, ‘We used to pray that someone would come to us, and we used to weep when no-one came’. Children from Chin Christian families have been taken away from their villages to Buddhist monasteries and forced to become monks and nuns at a distance from their families.rogers_t12

The Karen and Shan in Eastern Burma face what are certainly in my view crimes against humanity. Theirs is a case that should be investigated as an instance of genocide. Since 1996 over 3,000 villages have been destroyed, and over a million people internally displaced. In Karen State right now the worst offensive in a decade is taking place. In the last year alone, over 27,000 people have been forced from their homes. Their villages have been burnt down and often surrounded with landmines to prevent the inhabitants from returning. Civilians are shot at blank point range. Recently we had reports of a nine-year old girl and of a deaf man shot dead, and of a woman raped and murdered.

rogers_t13rogers_t14This is how I usually get into Burma [picture_12]. Out of my seventeen visits to Burma, only one has been legal. Most of the time I go across the border from Thailand into the jungle without a visa or a passport, because this is the only way to see the reality of what is happening to the most forgotten and most vulnerable people. When we do go, we find scenes like this [picture_13]. This was a village that had been attacked and burnt down just few weeks before our arrival. And this is the same village after they had built it up again [picture_14]. Certain communities whose villages had been attacked were in some ways luckier than others. If they lived next to the border, they could cross it when they were attacked and nobody was killed – they lost their homes, but not their lives. The communities deeper inside rogers_t15Karen State, and those in other ethnic states that have no safe place to which they can run, are even more vulnerable.

Describing the intentions of the regime, a Burmese army general said a few years ago that if the government had its rogers_t16rogers_t17way, all the Karen would be dead in ten years. At that point, he suggested, if you wished to see a Karen you would have to go to a museum in Rangoon. That is the fate that could await children like this on [picture_15].

The photograph [picture_16] is of a boy we met on a journey into Shan State. He had seen his parents killed in front of him and his village burnt down while he himself had been taken away for forced labour. As he told his story, he looked in my eyes and he said words I will never forget, words that motivate my work in Burma: ‘Please tell the world to put pressure on the military regime to stop killing its people; please tell the world not to forget us’. Here again are people used as human minesweepers [picture_17], who had to walk across minefields to clear them for the military. They lost limbsrogers_t18 in the process, while others were killed.

It is very difficult for the children we have met to describe what they have experienced, but sometimes it is possible for them to draw something and that may even be therapeutic for them . The results, however, are horrifying. This is a drawing by a 10 year-old child [picture_18]. We see a baby being crushed to death in a rice pounder, a woman being killed, and another woman being held captive. These are the kinds of crimes that the children today have to witness in various part of Burma.

rogers_t19rogers_t20rogers_t21I would like to pass on through some other images, without saying much about them, hoping that they will stay with you after my words have gone [pictures_19-20-21].

When we travel, it is very important to obtain first-hand testimonies. This picture [picture_22] was taken in a camp for internally displaced people in the jungle where we were interviewing many victims of the most recent offensives. The man had been captured and severely tortured. He hadrogers_t22 been beaten so badly that he had lost his sight. He was forced to stand for a whole day and the soldiers poured red ants all over him.

Finally, I should like to say a few words about the Kachin people. The Kachin are an ethnic group I came to know more recently. They are certainly as forgotten as the Chin, if not more so . One of the reasons they are particularly forgotten is that they have in place a ceasefire agreement with the regime, so that they are not engaged in armed resistance. On the positive side is the absence of armed conflict. Therefore, the most grotesque crimes – destruction of villages, and displacement of thousands of people – are not taking place in their region. Some more subtle or individual crimes, however, such as rape, forced labour, religious discrimination and religious persecutions certainly are taking place. The people are very nervous of speaking out because of the ceasefire they have in place. In rogers_t23some ways their situation is even worse than that of others. Things are, however, starting to change, and I have been working with them to try to be a voice for them on the outside to raise awareness. Kachin State, bordering on China, is beautiful [picture_23]. I met with the Kachin Women’s Association several times and they have been particularly active on the issue of human trafficking. Kachin women are sold into China either for prostitution or as wives, and some have been trafficked as far away as the border between North Korea arogers_t24nd China.

Another piece of the bizarre propaganda of the regime is what they call ‘the People’s desire’ [picture_24], which goes like this: ‘oppose those relying on external elements, acting as drudges, holding negative views; oppose those trying to jeopardise the stability of the state and the progress of the nation; oppose foreign nations interfering in the internal affairs of the state;’ – they were not counting our Foreign Office there, given its line on Pakistan! – ‘crush all internal or external disruptive elements as the common enemy’.

rogers_t25rogers_t26I would suggest that the people’s real desire is somewhat different. They desire an end to scenes like this [picture_25] – a village after it had been attacked, with inhabitants watching the burning of their village following the flight of the perpetrators. The people’s desire is for peace and for this kind of thing [picture_26] – here you see my sister, a musician, who came with me on a trip last year, playing her violin, an instrument many had never heard before. This shows the incredible capacity of music to communicate beyond words and languages.

These people desire more of that. Their desire can, in fact, be summed up in the words of a Christian Chin Pastor who said: ‘Please let the world know: we want freedom, freedom, just freedom. Freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to praise God, freedom to work, freedom to learn, freedom to write. Just freedom’. rogers_t27

The people’s desire is to receive an answer to a question posed in this photograph [picture_27]. The picture was taken in a village of internally displaced people whose situation was dire. I remember walking around and seeing people dying of treatable diseases, of malnutrition, and of malaria. It was a desperate state of affairs, and I was feeling rather depressed by it. Then I turned a corner and walked past a little bamboo hut. Something inside caught my eye – a banner hanging on the wall which poses a simple question for all of us who have the privilege of living in freedom: ‘Are you for democracy or dictatorship?’.

rogers_t28If, as I assume, we are for democracy, what can we do? We at Christian Solidarity Worldwide have a motto: ‘Pray, protest and provide’. Keep Burma and all the nations of the world that are not free in your prayers and hold this image [picture_28] in your heart as you do so. ‘Protest’ can take many forms, and we can explore how that might work later. And ‘provide’ in whatever way you feel led to do so.

Let me conclude with two quotations that sum up the messages that I have tried to convey tonight. First of all,rogers_t29 this photograph [picture_29] shows a Karenni relief worker who on 10 April 2007 was captured by the Burma army while delivering humanitarian aid to his people. He was captured, held for several days, interrogated, brutally tortured and then, I am sad to say, executed. The organisation he worked with, the Free Burma Rangers, said this about him – and I think it sums up our ambitions in Christian Solidarity Worldwide: ‘He was a wonderful man who smiled at everything; he is missed by us all. He was killed doing what he believed in: bringing help to people under oppression. His death is tragic, but not in vain. He has made a mark of love and service that made a difference in the lives of those he helped, and in all of our lives’. Our ambition is that people may be able to say of us that we try to make a ‘mark of love and service’.

Thomas à Kempis in his Imitation of Christ wrote these words: ‘Those who love stay awake when duty calls, and wake up from sleep when someone needs help. Those who love keep burning, no matter what, like a lighted torch. Those who love take on anything, complete goals, bring plans to fruition. But those who do not love faint and lie down on the job’. I believe that those of us who live in the free world cannot afford to ‘faint and lie down on the job’. We should remember the words of William Wilberforce, very much in our thoughts this year, who said in introducing legislation to end the slave trade: ‘We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot turn aside’. 

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Discussant

Michael Elmer: I have found this account fascinating. Because, however, of the geographical nature of my diplomatic postings, I do not have any personal area expertise to bring to bear on the countries with which you have dealt. I shall make my first visit to India in a fortnight’s time. Nonetheless, although lacking personal expertise I do know men and women who have had it, including some from your own organisation. Actually, I have stronger links with Aid to the Church in Need, but I greatly admire and respect the work you do.

What emerges from an account like that we have just heard, and from similar such accounts, is that the quality of information gathering is excellent and that of the publications produced always high. One observation I should like to make is that a greater focus could perhaps be placed on the political action engendered in order to attract more attention to these issues in Pakistan, Burma and elsewhere. I think your bringing in of a Member of Parliament was an excellent thing to do, but I would also urge – you may indeed already be doing this, without having had time to mention it in your talk – a strong focus, more than just occasional, on inter-parliamentary groups and such political activity.

It seems to me that you might profitably work on promotion outside churches, for example by placing people with big posters outside Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. This might raise considerable sums in donations. You might also consider hanging posters in Urdu and other relevant languages near mosques to convey messages such as: ‘You worship Almighty God in your way (and we thank God for it), but please be aware that in the country from which many of you originate this is not possible for Christians’.

Let me finish with an observation from a retired member of the Foreign Office. Do not limit contacts there to desk officers. There have been a number of developments in the Foreign Office in recent times, some associated with Robin Cook’s tenure as Secretary of State. Quite a number of inexperienced new entrants are now working as desk officers. I know this for certain. If you really want to be effective today it is necessary to make contact with the Head of Department or someone above.

 

General discussion

Russell Wilcox: In your very interesting talk you contrast ‘freedom’ and the horrific conditions in which the people you have described are living. Although I do not want to underestimate the plight of these people, I wonder whether your description is too ‘black and white’, especially considering the extent to which forms of de-humanisation are taking place in this country, for example, by abortion. I wonder what your views on such issues are, in particular given your role in a major political party.

Ben Rogers: Your question raises a series of very important problems. Certainly on the abortion issue I am completely at one with you. When I stood as a parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham at the last General Election I highlighted a pro-life message and Lord (David) Alton came to speak with me at a meeting. We surely do have significant problems of our own: abortion, yes, but also our political choices in the war on terror, which, although not comparable with the policies of the governments I have been describing, have severely undermined our moral credibility and authority. I refer in particular to the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib scandals. I think the key difference between our society and the others about which I have been speaking is that we are free. We do have the opportunity to protest against abortion and about what has been going on in the war on terror. We do have the opportunity to try to influence policy. Certainly in Burma that opportunity does not exist. In Pakistan there is perhaps a bit more space for it. We have freedom of speech and freedom of religion to put into practice what we believe, as well as the possibility of using those freedoms to speak on behalf of the voiceless – the unborn child and the forgotten people of the world.

 

Dr. Desmond Kelly: I should like to be an advocate for a slightly different point of view. For those of you who do not know of my life experience, I was born in Burma and left when I was seven leaving my father behind to fight with the Chin against the Japanese. I was long determined to try to revisit Chin State which, as you know, is forbidden to foreigners. I was finally allowed to enter in 1999, provided I had a ‘minder’ and a member of Military Intelligence with me.

Historically speaking, after independence the Karen people never signed up to a united Burma, so civil war broke out. The Chin actually signed an agreement with the government and found themselves, to their great horror, fighting against another hill tribe, the Karen. In general, therefore, the Chin were in a much better situation. They were also smaller and more independent group, with the vast majority of them now living across the border. Currently there are very few Chin actually involved in military action. This has been greatly helpful to them, and their area was rather forgotten until India took an interest in it, which make it rather more important.

I soon discovered that the way to get things done in Burma, and particularly in Chin State, is to do them quietly, for, as soon as something is found to be actually working, the Burmese will try to get a piece of the action. I hoped that my presence there would do more good than harm. I was keen to enter Chin State and talk about these things, as you have done, carefully and off the record. Now there are troops in Chin State, and they have enormous power there. Since I spent six days in Chin State accompanied not only by my ‘minder’ – a Major in the Army – but also by his best friend who was in charge of Chin state for Military Intelligence, I was in a way ‘sleeping with the enemy’. I was, therefore, very cautious and, with Military Intelligence in attendance, I did not ask people really pertinent questions and did not want them to tell the truth, since that might have been detrimental to them. Still, the experience was very helpful. It allowed me to hear of my father’s activity during World War II, and to gain some insight into what was possible and what impossible.

I did see some pagodas being built. As a doctor, I was particularly interested in visiting hospitals. They are awful and empty. In one I found a doctor who was not only a surgeon but also his own anaesthetist. When they run out of oxygen, the cylinders have to be replenished in Mandalay, ten days travel from there. Often the medicines were Chinese, and to know the required doses a person had to understand not only Burmese and Chin but also Chinese. The situation was dreadful.

However, one thing that is flourishing is an organisation called Kids Alive which is now helping hundreds of orphans. I was terrified by the thought that such organisations, which have been doing so well and which are now looking after many children, might be shut down overnight by a Burmese government that took a dislike to orphanages supported by foreigners.

It is terrible to think what might happen under a regime that wants Suu Kyi dead, one that does not want dialogue and will not have it. My minder had been working with Khin Nyunt, who had been head of Intelligence and also Prime Minister for a time before he was arrested by the generals. He at least had been very happy to enter into dialogue with Suu Kyi and it is also said that some of his men actually saved Suu Kyi when she fell into an ambush. So, dialogue did exist at one time.

I would, therefore, urge caution, bearing in mind that the present government does not want dialogue. It has China, Russia, India and Thailand on its side as all of these countries are now purchasing Burma’s raw materials. In the past the regime would have been very careful in dealing with the Chin and would have taken into account reactions from other governments. Now, after off-shore natural gas fields have been discovered, it is in a completely different position. It no longer needs the United Kingdom or the European Union, as it is certain, come what may, of support from Russia and China.

Ben Rogers: Thank you very much. You have raised a number of very important points. I certainly agree about the need to be very careful. I also recognise that not all of us should be doing what I do – making noise and drawing attention to these issues – and that there is much value in people like you going in quietly. Very few people get into Chin State, so the fact that you have reached it is very valuable. This is not, however, necessarily an ‘either/or’ situation. There is a balance to be struck between the need to bring the world’s attention on the suffering of the people of Burma, and the need to use whatever opportunities there are to do the kind of work that you have described inside it.

I should also stress that when I interview people to get their first-hand stories, all of that is done either on the other side of the border in Thailand or India, or in IDP camps and areas controlled by the resistance. The danger of being overheard by Intelligence is not there, and people can talk, if not completely freely, at least openly. When I have been inside Burma to Rangoon and Mandalay, I have always been extremely careful never to initiate a risky conversation, although, that said, on several occasions people themselves have initiated such conversations with me. I remember a shopkeeper in Maymyo with whom I was discussing how business was going and making small talk. Suddenly, and unprompted by me, he started telling me what he thought of the regime and the terrible things that were happening. I was trying to stop him for his own sake, but could not do so. I said he was very brave to speak out like that, and asked him whether he was not afraid to do so. He replied that he was indeed afraid, but that he had so few opportunities to speak that he felt he was going to explode. I agree with you, therefore, that, when one is inside the country, one should not initiate such conversations, but one must nonetheless remain open to such opportunities as may arise.

Finally, on the relations of Burma with China, India and ASEAN, you are quite right to say that the regime draws much comfort and strength from them, but I do not think that this a reason to give up on our efforts. It is actually a reason to rethink our strategies, or at least to add a new dimension to our strategy, by finding ways to make China, India and other Asian countries take the situation more seriously and try to use the influence they have on the regime with a view to to bringing about some change. I am not completely pessimistic about the prospect of getting results from such strategy. There are signs that ASEAN is getting fed up with the regime and adopting a stronger line than hitherto. China is not completely uncritical of the regime, and opportunities may arise as it seeks to play a more responsible role on the international stage. India is perhaps the most frustrating of the major actors. It proudly styles itself ‘the world largest democracy’, yet in some ways it is the least helpful of the three. While China and ASEAN are now starting to become – cautiously – more critical of the regime, India seems to be moving in the opposite direction. It used to be very supportive of the democracy movement, but now it says nothing at all critical. It is earning money in Burma via the arms trade and military training, as well as investing in gas pipelines. We do need to fix our sights on all three and see how to use our influence to push them into exerting more pressure on the Burmese leadership.

Dr. Desmond Kelly: I agree with all you have said. Action should be undertaken from different angles. Yours is a tremendously important angle. The Burmese people do need to know and to feel that their message is reaching the outside world. I hope that the Foreign Office will understand that the more British tourists go to visit Burma, the better. They can do much good by taking pictures and spending money with local people.

 

Luis Macchiavello: I can only congratulate you on what you are doing. I think that the activities you have been mentioning are complementary and not mutually conflictive. With my own experience in the case of Chile, I know how difficult it is to have the British government intervene even in the case of clearly oppressive regimes.

I appreciate the value of what you are doing from personal experience. I was tortured myself while imprisoned in Chile, and one of the things that kept us going there was the knowledge that the world outside, thanks to people like you, was aware of what was happening. The news spread because of courageous action by groups like yours rather than because of government interest in the United Kingdom or the United States. We saw people die, but at least we had the opportunity to talk when visits from human rights groups took place. That was incredibly valuable to us.

Official action by other governments at the diplomatic level can be important, but talking to suffering people is a front-line activity and perhaps more useful.

Ben Rogers: Thank you for those inspiring and encouraging remarks. They confirm what people in the countries where I work often say, like the shopkeeper in Maymyo. Despite several attempts from me to end the conversation, he was simply bursting to speak.

 

Mark Lloyd-Davies: What role should the United Nations and European Union play in order to address the issues you have highlighted in Burma, but also in other crises taking place in Darfur, Zimbabwe and elsewhere? Do you think that they are currently playing the role they should be playing? In your opinion, could specific reforms of the United Nations institutional structure improve the effectiveness of its actions in these contexts?

Ben Rogers: It is easier, in fact, to comment on the European Union. It can certainly do a lot more. The approach of the European Union varies according to the country concerned. With Burma the European Union has a common position, and this is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because it means that all the European countries speak with one voice, and this is surely valuable. The weakness, however, is that this common position seems to be their lowest common denominator. France, in particular, is extremely weak on Burma as it is on many other human rights issues. The gas company Total is the single largest corporate investor in Burma and a major contributor to the Burmese regime’s revenues. As a result of this, there is no way that France would support a stronger position. I would encourage you to consider this when you buy petrol from a Total petrol station. The European Union should do more vis-à-vis the Burmese regime, but it is being held back by some of its member states.

The same problem holds back the United Nations. The United Nations, if it does speak with one voice, can be very powerful, and in certain situations very helpful and effective. In 1999, for example, after a referendum was held in which the majority of the people of East Timor people voted for independence, the Indonesian government unleashed for few weeks the most horrendous violence, destroying 80% of the country’s infrastructure. The United Nations then intervened, initially led by Australia, and succeeded in restoring order and in setting up a transitional government. One might argue that the United Nations response was very slow and that many lives lost could have been saved had it acted faster. I can be said that the United Nations is far from perfect. What, however, is the alternative? If there was no United Nations, what would have happened in East Timor? Indonesia would most probably have been able to complete the destruction of the country.

I would like to see significant reform of the UN. I believe the composition of its new Human Rights Council is not as bad as the former Human Rights Commission which used to contain Libya, Cuba, China, etc. – perhaps not Burma, but I am sure they might have got there one day if it had continued as it was. It was, in fact, almost a ‘Human Rights Abuses Commission’. The new Human Rights Council is slightly better, but not much. I would like to see a mechanism in place requiring countries actually to uphold human rights before they can be admitted to play a part in its working. There is no country that does it perfectly – we do not ourselves – but our record is surely better than those of some other countries.

 

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: I should like to ask about the use of the media. While in general recourse to the mass media must be of considerable importance, some are clearly more useful than others. Might it be the case that niche media are more important for such work than mass media? Can you tell us something about your communication policy?

Ben Rogers: Communication is absolutely at the heart of our work. We use the media in various ways. We send out press releases and nurture personal relationships. Sometimes we are proactive, and on other occasions reactive. We use both mainstream secular media – press, television, radio – and the Christian media in various forms. With the Christian media of the different denominations, which I suppose one might describe as niche media, we have a much higher success rate. Occasions when we manage to achieve similar successes in coverage from the mainstream secular media are certainly fewer. I am sure we can improve our impact in the media generally, and we do need to pay close attention to this issue.

 

Prof. Sir Bryan Thwaites: Am I right in thinking that in the 1930s, before World War II, Burma was a reasonably peaceful, well-governed and well-organised country?

Ben Rogers: Reasonably so. It was not like it is today, but it did have its problems. There was a movement against colonial rule that we suppressed, on occasions rather brutally.

Prof. Sir Bryan Thwaites: Was there any particular turning point after the War from which originate the problems of which we have been speaking?

Ben Rogers: I think it would be fair to say that the problems developed rather slowly, but that there was a more rapid degeneration after the military seized power in the 1962 coup. Viewed from a long-term perspective, however, there have always been tensions, in particular between the Burmese majority and the Karen. These surfaced at independence in 1947 and further escalated during the period of democratic rule prior to the coup.

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Was not U Thant, a Burmese, Secretary-General of the United Nations for a considerable time in the middle of all that?

Ben Rogers: Yes, and when his body was brought back to Burma a major student revolt erupted, as it was thought the regime had not honoured him adequately or given him a proper funeral.

Dr. Desmond Kelly: Adding to these points, mention should be made of the tragic occasion when three-quarters of the cabinet were assassinated by a Burmese politician. That event had a devastating effect on the possibility of the country doing well.

In regard of the situation of the country before the War, I can draw on my father’s experience. I have the impression that it was a very efficient country. It was one of the biggest rice exporters in Asia and sent its produce all over the world. Now it lacks the rice to feed its own people. Everything degenerated very rapidly after that assassination.

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: When precisely did that event take place?

Dr. Desmond Kelly: It happened on 19 July 1947.

 

Dr. Maria Nuila: I am from Latin America and the picture of persecutions you have been drawing looks quite familiar. In such situations, there are often groups, in particular among the middle classes, which seem untouched by problems which they ignore. The suffering must wait for foreigners to intervene and speak up for them. Why is it that sectors of national communities even join those who are fighting their own people?

Ben Rogers: In countries like Burma, and certainly in other countries, too, there is a simple explanation of such behaviour: fear. Such people fear losing their comparative social advantages in the middle classes. They also learn lessons from tragic events in the past. In Burma there have been courageous popular uprisings. There was one in 1988 which resulted in mass slaughter. Some people are, quite understandably, afraid to protest against the regime.

Dr. Maria Nuila: Do you think there are people who, although not directly involved in such killings themselves, actually support repression to protect or improve their own social status and power? Is there a degree of complicity?

Ben Rogers: In my opinion there is complicity only on the part of a small minority. There are people in Burma who are related to the generals or other persons in the regime. The vast majority of the population hates the situation, hates the regime and would like to change it, but is understandably afraid of arrest, torture and being killed.

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Pictures from Ben Rogers Seminar

Thomas More Institute, Wednesday 31 May 2007



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