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Burma: Regime’s Accusation Against ICRC is Unacceptable

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The International Committee of the Red Cross released a statement condemning the Burmese government of human rights abuses; afterwards ICRC was accused by the military regime of having links to insurgents. Burma is again refusing to abide by the international law that it is a party to. 
The Burmese government has suppressed humanitarian organisations operating inside Burma for the past two years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose offices were ordered to be closed in 2006, released a press statement on this issue for the first time, 29 June 2007. The statement denounced the military regime for committing human rights violations against detainees and civilians. ''The repeated abuses committed against men, women and children living along the Thai-Myanmar border violate many provisions of international humanitarian law,” said Mr. Jakob Kellenberger, ICRC president.1 ICRC also demanded that the Burmese government take urgent action to end its abuses: “We urged the government of Myanmar to put a stop to all violations of international humanitarian law and to ensure that they do not recur”.2

A day later and in response to the press statement, Prime Minister Soe Win’s wife and president of the Myanmar Women’s Federation, Mrs. Than Than New, gave a speech accusing the ICRC of having clandestine links with anti-junta rebel groups. The allegation of Mrs. Than New is unreasonable and completely baseless. The ICRC is an international humanitarian group whose mission is to carry out health, water and sanitation programs. Its role is to assess the security and living conditions of civilian populations in conflict-affected areas. One activity, carried out since 1999, is to pay regular visits to detainees in prison with the purpose of facilitating contact with their families, providing access to the health care, clean water, and sanitation, all basic rights. The accusation against the ICRC of supporting anti-junta rebel groups is completely irrational.

The ICRC’s statement accused the Burmese junta of forcing thousands of detainees to act as porters for the armed forces in their campaign against ethnic minority groups. Civilians living in the community affected by armed conflict along the Thai-Burma border also face human rights violations committed by the Burmese army. These abuses have affected civilians’ way of life and created a climate of fear that has forced them into displacement or exile.

However, government authorities have consistently refused to cooperate with international organisations to stop abuses. Instead, it has increased restrictions on humanitarian groups working inside Burma, including the ICRC, making it difficult to continue their operations. This is tragically contrary to what the Deputy Permanent Representative of Myanmar reported to the United Nations during the Human Rights Council’s fourth session, saying that “Myanmar firmly believes that only genuine cooperation and constructive dialogue would best serve the promotion and protection of human rights.”3

Although the ICRC has made an attempt to dialogue with Burmese authorities to bring an end to the deadlock for humanitarian agencies, the officials remain silent and no progress has been made. With no response from the government, the ICRC had no other alternative but to “take the exceptional step” of making its concern public by issuing a press statement.4 Given the ICRC’s relative silence in most situations, this statment illustrates just how critical the situation inside Burma is, and also confirms that concrete action from ASEAN and the international community are crucial.

The evidence from the ICRC was rejected by Mrs. Than Than New in her speech at the Women Day’s ceremony in Burma. She claimed that the authorities had found evidence linking the personnel of the five ICRC regional offices to insurgent groups, that their activities harmed the state’s sovereignty, security and peace.5 She also criticised the ICRC statement for being “a wrong assessment based on made-up stories and exaggerated accusations of anti-government groups.”6

ICRC is considered a human rights defender organisation that has the right to criticise a governmental body as provided in the article 9 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which states that human rights defenders, as individuals or in associations with others, have the right “to complain about the policies and actions of individual and governmental bodies with regard to violation of human rights and fundamental freedom”.7 Burma, as a member of the United Nations, has an obligation to follow this declaration.

Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, stated at the fourth session of the Human Rights Council that “the Government of Myanmar [needs] to authorize access to the affected areas by the United Nations and associated personnel, as well as personnel of humanitarian organization, and guarantee their safety, security and freedom of movement” and “…to respect its obligation under international humanitarian law to protect civilians from armed conflicts.”

FORUM-ASIA calls on Burma to abide by its obligations under international law, which include the recommendations from the Special Rapporteur and the standards of United Nations including the UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration.

1 “Myanmar: ICRC denounces major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law”, Press release by ICRC on 29 June 2007,
2 Ibid.
3 Statement by U Nyunt Swe, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Union of Myanmar at the Fourth Session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva 23 March 2007.
4 “UN talks to Burma, Red Cross raps it”, Bangkok Post, 6 July 2007.
5 “Myanmar accuses Red Cross of helping rebels”, ABC News, 4 July 2007,
6 “Burma: Red Cross tied to rebels”, Bangkok Post 5 July 2007.
7 Article 9 No.3 (a), Declaration on the Rights and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Adopted by General Assembly resolution 53/144 of 9 December 1998.