Burma: New reasons for optimism

Gustavo Capdevila

The erratic process of democratisation in Burma has accelerated, given some “interesting” new signals, says Brazilian jurist Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on the situation in this country. Pinheiro, who on June 1 had said he was “disappointed with the lack of cooperation” from the military government, said that he found “some interesting new changes” in the National Convention process, which the junta convened to draw up a new constitution. Since the National Convention got under way on May 17, Pinheiro has been following the events through reports from the region and in the press, because the Burmese government refused to authorise the May 31-Jun. 13 visit to Rangoon that the UN Commission had asked the rapporteur to make.

In his latest public communiqué, Pinheiro criticised the military junta saying “necessary steps have not been taken to ensure minimum democratic conditions” to reconvene the National Convention sessions. Without the participation of the National League of Democracy (NLD), the leading opposition force which won 80 per cent of the vote in the 1990 elections, and without the participation of other political parties, the process is not “genuinely free, transparent (or) inclusive,” Pinheiro said at the time. But the special rapporteur now believes that the National Convention has seen “some interesting developments,” such as the participation of ethnic groups. The representatives of those communities have been given the opportunity to distribute their documents and present their ideas to the assembly, he said.

Pinheiro, who has visited the country of 49 million people seven times as envoy of the UN Commission, has always reacted cautiously to the military junta’s announcements of democratising measures. His stance contrasted with the more accommodating attitude of former Malaysian dip-lomat Razali Ismail, special representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for tracking the evolution of Burma’s political situation. But now it is Pinheiro who is finding reasons for optimism.

The strategy of the Brazilian jurist is to insist to the military junta that it would benefit them to have their views included in his report to the UN. Sources from the international human rights arena believe the pressure from Pinheiro could create a division in the Burmese government, which has already shown signs of internal differences in the way it treats the NLD, despite intransigence on the continued house arrest of the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate. The Pinheiro report is to be presented in late July for inclusion in the documents for the next UN General Assembly in September. When the rapporteur mentions information he receives on Burma, he is referring to the ongoing contacts in recent weeks in Bangkok with ambassadors and civil society groups from the region. Pinheiro paid a courtesy call to Rangoon’s ambassador in London and hopes to meet this week with junta’s chief diplomat assigned to the international agencies in Geneva. “It is important that the report include the government’s points of view,” he said.

The report could be more complete and detailed if he were allowed to visit Burma. therwise, the text will be based entirely on second-hand information, “which I don’t believe is in the country’s best interest,” he said. Burma’s military junta has held power since 1992, and the national legislature has been suspended since 1988. Since achieving independence in 1948, the country has experienced a series of authoritarian governments. — IPS