The Struggle for Reform with Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga, Michel Tran Duc, Jestina Mukoko, Zoya Phan

A panel including Viet Tan activist, pro-democracy organizer, and the son of an exiled Vietnamese intellectual, Michel Tran Duc; senior UN correspondent at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga; Zimbabwean human rights activist and Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, Jestina Mukoko;  and one of the leading activists in Europe for democracy in Myanmar, Zoya Phan, address the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full remarks

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga:

Now it’s the time for questions. Would you have any questions? Kindly introduce yourself before you speak and tell whom you are asking the question of. I have a request from Mrs Makoko: Iin the expectation of an increase of violence in the run-up to the next presidential elections, does your NGO foresee a change in reporting, monitoring, [making] this information available only on demand? How do you expect the situation to be in the coming –  for the next presidential elections? And this question is coming from Janna Pavorova. 

Jestina Mukoko: 

I think in the next election we intend to continue monitoring and documenting around political violence and we do not make this information available on demand. We now have a website and we will be uploading our reports on the website for everybody to see what will be happening. 

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga: 

Okay there’s another question for you about the number of people and the situation of people who are obliged to leave Zimbabwe actually as a consequence of the political violence and economical situation I suppose, yeah. Do you have details about that and figures?

Jestina Mukoko: 

I do have a rough idea in terms of the number of people that have been forced to leave the country because of the economic situation and also the political situation. I think the count at the moment could be in the region of 3.5 million Zimbabweans who are in the diaspora. People are in South Africa, Botswana and we have also a large number of people who are in the United Kingdom, the US and every other part of the world that you can think of. But I think the greater concentration of people are in South Africa and the United Kingdom

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga: 

Thank you. I have now a question for Mr Michel Tran Duc. How can we help the Vietnamese position? Should we boycott Vietnamese products? 

Michel Tran Duc: 

Thank you. Well at the present time the Vietnamese political opposition is gagged. But there is an effort, an attempt, to ask for a greater democracy in the country. This has been helped by the Arab Revolution. So the first thing you can do is to talk with people around you. For many countries, it’s a very calm country, Vietnam seems not to have any problems. So you have to talk about it and say that there are dissidents who are languishing in prison and we must break the wall of silence and shed light on what is happening. It is hard for the dissidents to feel that they’re [not] alone when they’re in their cells. Now I’ve left documents here with the names of people who are prisoners of conscience and I’ve left their addresses. You can write [to] them, you can write [to] politicians about them, and may name these figures. There are people in the west who have gone – political figures have gone to Vietnam to meet with these dissidents and their families and this is a very positive sign of support. 

Now concerning boycotts, this is rather tricky. We boycott because we want to punish the regime but we shouldn’t boycott because of people who work in these areas. Some people can be boycotted. Some of the products made by small – but it’s the big enterprises yes, but not the small and medium-sized enterprises, that’s senseless. 

Now we think that one of the things that we can do as tourists is not just follow the normal tourist circus, see what they want to show you, but we should go beyond this and see what’s happening behind the scenes and talk to people. I think people are very hungry for change and want to express themselves. They want to hear about what’s happening outside and to cast a fresh eye on what’s going on in the country and to hear what’s happening outside. 

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga:

But is it possible for people to do this and to talk with the population? Is it possible? Aren’t the people under surveillance? don’t they run a risk if they talk with tourists? 

Michel Tran Duc: 

Well there are a lot of tourists so the regime can’t keep an eye on everybody. There are official circuits of tourism. But people can leave these circuits and we often offer the possibility to certain political figures to take different routes. We can do this discreetly without drawing the attention of the authorities. If you’re a tourist you could talk with the people around you, there’s no problem on that level. And then even you can speak on behalf of somebody who wants to complain about the regime. That depends on whom you end up talking to, but you can enter into contact with people who are not officially on your tourist route itinerary.

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga:

Will Karen People have candidates in the April Burma election?

Zoya Phan: 

As I understand, the Karen National Union, which is the main pro-democracy Karen resistance group, doesn’t have any plan to participate in the upcoming bi-elections. But there might be small political parties who are under the administrations of the dictatorship. But even if these small parties want the elections in spite of lots of restrictions and censorship and security laws, there will be very little chance for them to make a difference within the parliament. Because basically the parliament was set up by the dictatorship and it was after the 2010 elections and the Parliament was powerless, and very much dominated by military-backed political parties and MPS. And the main problem with this parliament is the Constitution. 

Because like every house, you have a strong foundation and frames to keep it strong. And for Burma to legalize and strengthen military rule it is the constitution, which is the foundation of this military rule but in civilian guise. And this constitution doesn’t guarantee any democracy and human rights for the people of Burma. That’s why many opposition movements disagree with this constitution and I strongly disagree with this constitution especially when it is a death sentence for ethnic diversities in Burma where it doesn’t guarantee a federal democratic equal opportunity self-determination for ethnic people. And based on the constitution above the parliament there is a President and that means the parliament is very powerless. And above the president there is a council called National Defense and Security Council and within its 11 members of the council, 10 members are from military background; current military personnels, or ex-military people. And above this Council, there is the military, the Burmese Army. So the Burmese Army still holds absolute power over the parliament, the president, and this National Defense and Security Council. So [it] is very unlikely that the by elections in [the] coming April will make much difference for the people in Burma.

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga:

So also there have been several questions also about the role of the international community and also the fact that now I mean you have the Human Rights Council taking place here in Geneva, not very far from here. And my question goes to the three of you and there are two questions coming also from the public, asking first of all, what should be the role of the international Community, particularly maybe in the three countries? Sometimes the international community is lighting certain progress when in reality, as you told us, things are not really changing in the field. And secondly, what would be the role of the Human Rights Council? What are you expecting from the Human Rights Council? So maybe I’ll ask to you Zoya first.

Zoya Phan: 

Yes, there have been some sanctions from the international community when it comes to human rights violations going on in Burma and there are a mixture. The U.S has very strong sanctions on Burma, including sanctions on financial transactions and imports and exports, and some sanctions from the Canadian government, and some small sanctions from the Australian government, and some weak sanctions from the European Union. And that’s because the EU has 27 member states and when it comes to the foreign policy, it took only one country to say no and then it doesn’t get strong sanctions from the European Union. Because we know Germany, Spain, Austria, and a few other countries who are very keen to do business with a dictatorship in Burma and they are not really deciding their foreign policy based on human rights and the principle of democracy. But there are some strong countries like the Czech Republic, the UK, and Ireland, and a few others who are strong on their principle on human rights and democracy in Burma. And when they come together in the European Union, their positions have been watered down by the German government and others. So far we know that governments, some governments in the European Union, want to relax sanctions because they feel like they want to encourage reform in Burma, which we can understand. And this is what people in Burma want, genuine reform, not just on the surface. Long-lasting peace and genuine reform. But so far, we haven’t been there yet. We are just at the beginning of a long way to walk. Aung San Suu Kyi herself said we are just at the beginning for a long, long, long way to walk. 

So what we want the international community to do is to maintain these sanctions because it is working. And what the government in Burma is now doing is releasing some political prisoners and opening up some political space for the opposition, the NLD, and starting to put efforts to have a ceasefire with ethnic armed groups. It is because of international sanctions and because of pressure from within the country. It’s not because they care about human rights, democracy and the right things to do. So international pressure is very important to us so please keep this pressure until we have genuine peace in Burma, and we have durable and long-lasting peace for all the people in Burma. 

And we would like to see [the] UN Human Rights Council to be strong on the situation in Burma, to condemn the human rights violations that [have] been taking place. Just a few months ago, a 12 year old boy from Kachin state in the northern part of Burma, had to dig up his mother’s body because his mother was shot dead by the Burmese Army and dumped her body just like that. And a 24 years old teacher in Kachin State. She was four months pregnant and she was shot dead by the Burmese Army. And again last week in Kayin state in eastern Burma, a 22 year old woman face attempted rape by the Burmese army Soldiers. And there are still numerous human rights violations in Burma. 50, 000 people have been displaced in the past years because of the increase of the attacks by the Burmese army soldiers and we have half a million people [who] are internally displaced or hiding in the jungle without proper food and proper shelters. And millions [of] people from Burma are exiled and are forced to flee from their homelands. We just want to go home. I want to go home but I can’t. That’s why we are here to ask the Human Rights Council to condemn the human rights violations happening in Burma and to continue your strong pressure on the military-backed government in Burma.

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga: 

Thank you Zoya, thank you so much. So Michel, what is your view on the role the international community can play and the Human Rights Council that is taking place right now in Geneva?

Michel Tran Duc: 

Well to begin with, I totally endorse what Zoya said. International pressure does work; it has to be constant and strong and ongoing. For example, last November, my friend’s sentence was considerably shortened and now he’s out of prison. So you have to keep the pressure up for a long time and make it strong so that people will be able to leave prison.

Now concerning the Human Rights Council, as I said, Vietnam has applied for the council for 2014-16. Now it’s just like asking a thief to join the police. Now if the thief has amended, why not and the police want to take him. But that’s not the case of Vietnam. I believe if they want to repent and stop the violations, okay. But for the time being, they have no place on that Council. 

Now the council should point a finger to all those and accuse all those who are violating human rights. The working group on detentions did this, they did point a figure and talked about people who need to be freed. And so people need to be freed. We should point out all the violations, all the abuses of authority that have been taking place in Vietnam and there are millions. In funding to help improve the Vietnamese political cultural legal system that is being sent in by Europe, and this money must truly be used to help the country move forward, not only to line the pockets of those who are in power. 

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga:

On the International Community; how can the International Community help your country and what you’re defending and also about the U.N Human Rights Council? 

Jestina Mukoko: 

Okay I’ll tackle the Human Rights Council one first. I think what really needs to be done by the Human Rights Council is that Zimbabwe appeared at the Human Rights Council in October and there is a raft of recommendations that they accepted. I think it is now the task of the Human Rights Council to follow up to see if these recommendations are being implemented. And I think it is also important for the Human Rights Council to insist on the visits of rapporteurs because our record has not been good in the past. But I remember that the minister actually said when he presented Zimbabwe’s report that rapporteurs are free to come and visit Zimbabwe. I think they need to test the waters and we need to be seeing this happening when they come on fact-finding missions. 

And like I said, in terms of the international community, I think it depends on situation to situation. In some situations it does work. As I can testify, in my case I believe that the international pressure that was applied on the government did work to my advantage. But I think we have also seen in some instances where International pressure actually works the opposite. So it needs to be considered from situation to situation. And we are aware that we have some leaders in Zimbabwe who are on the targeted sanctions imposed by the EU and recently some of them have been removed from that list. And I think especially because a lot of people were recognizing that the implementation of the global political agreement was being stalled because Zanu PF was insisting that those sanctions need to be removed first. So I think it is important that situations are considered in the manner that they happen and individually considered by the international community. Thank you. 

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga:

Thank you, thank you so much. We’re going to conclude our panel. I’d like to thank all of our panelists for having come here to speak of their situation. They are available if you so wish for any further questions that you might have later on. And we hope that you will talk about them, and talk about their positions to help the situation in their respective countries improve. Thank you.

[Applause]

Hillel Neuer: 

Thank you very much to the panel of speakers and to Catherine for moderating…

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