Speech on Myanmar/Burma

Rep. Lorenzo R. Tañada III
Privilege Speech

05 December 2006


Mr. Speaker, my dear colleagues, I rise today on a matter concerning Myanmar, our co-ASEAN member country. As part of a politically and economically critical area in this part of Asia, I believe we have the right to be concerned with the circumstances surrounding our brothers and sisters in the region.


For more than four decades now, Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is governed by military junta. Since 1962, the people of Myanmar has lost their sovereignty to govern themselves. Such governance—which is both undemocratic and anti-people—has effected more than just poverty to the people. It manifested health crisis to the country—bringing about poor water sanitation, an environment conducive for the spread of bacteria and diseases—affecting not just those in the confines of their houses, but more so, those more than 1,000 prisoners in jail.


Further, the Burmese children, unlike our sons and daughters, were not given the chance to laugh, play and enjoy their childhood. At an early age, they had to work and help their families.


Education becomes a very elusive dream for these children. Not just because they had to work, but because primary and secondary education in the country had to be subsidized by the families of the students. The parents of a student had to shell out money for the books, uniforms, classrooms, even for the salary of the teachers! Refugees International—a human rights group—estimates that only 1,000 of the 30,000 school age children living in conflict areas reach high school.


Aside from the situation of education and health in Myanmar, what makes the country so infamous has been their gross violation of human rights and civil liberties. Freedom of association, of expression and information are seriously being violated.


Human rights abuses ranging from harassment to torture to forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings has become a part of the struggle for democracy of the people. Those who are openly critical of the government usually find themselves in the hands of the military, more fearful for the lives of their families than their own.


Mr. Speaker,


At present, the military junta holds more than 1,100 prisoners of conscience[1], those people who were imprisoned solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs, making them one of the countries with the most numbers of political prisoners. Most of these are leaders and members of opposition parties who were arrested for their political activities and have not undergone any trial at all after their arrest.


The most prominent of which is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—the secretary general of the leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy—who has been under house arrest in the 11 years of the past 17 years and is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient for her non-violent struggle for democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi has had the opportunity to flee her country during her first release in 1995 but she opted to stay in Myanmar for her people. Her only crime has been to lead the country’s path towards democracy when her party won 82% of the seat in the 1990 elections—a victory which was never experienced by the people because the military did not give up their power, nor they had any intention to, in the first place.


Mr. Speaker,


            These circumstances make it apparent that the road map towards democracy has become slow and coarse. The democratization process has become too complicated and the military junta is not making things any bit easier.


            Sadly, though these circumstances have been happening for more than four decades now, the international community has only recently found their voice. The United Nations have put Myanmar in the Security Council agenda only last September. In spite of the social and political threats that the military junta poses in the international community, in spite of the number of resolutions passed to the different bodies of the UN, the international organization have only listed Burma on its agenda two months ago.


Prior to this, the Burmese government can already feel that the UN Security Council is keen on putting them on its agenda. The military reacted to this by allowing UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari to visit the country and conduct a dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.


            Though the UN mission was given access to confer important political matters with the leaders of the administration and opposition of Burma, the organization still believes that the country’s road to democratization remains hazy and lacking in direction. Thus, Burma was still put in the agenda of the organization.


            This move by the UN becomes very important and decisive for the ASEAN which only took notice of Burma’s internal affairs after it has bothered the UN member countries. In spite of its principle of non-interference, the association made an exception with the case of Burma.


            Apparently, the ASEAN leadership became frustrated with the junta’s hollow promises of political reform for its country. Although the association has long defended Burma’s military government from international pressure, it finally came to the realization that their defense for the country might lead to a severed relationship with the international community.


Mr. Speaker,


            Because of this move from the ASEAN leadership and membership, the Burmese military junta decided to relinquish their post as ASEAN chair for this year’s meeting and turn it over to the Philippines. While the ASEAN chairmanship protocol is by rotation, the Burmese government decided to forego the chairmanship because, according to them,  it has to focus its attention to “national reconciliation and democratization process” of the country.


That is why, this month, as ASEAN Chair, our country will be hosting the 10-nation summit in Cebu.


Mr. Speaker,


            Although the pressure from ASEAN has resulted on Myanmar’s yielding of its   chairmanship of the association, I believe that ASEAN’s influence on Myanmar should not stop there. The ASEAN chairmanship is not the end, it could be a start, but it is definitely not the end.


            There are issues still to be confronted and resolved and reforms to be undertaken. The road to democracy remains vague and hazy for the people of Burma.


 As the current Chair of ASEAN, I believe our duty does not end in being the presiding officer of the association. Let us help our Asian brothers and sisters win their liberty, freedom and sovereignty. I urge this chamber to exercise its legislative rights and privileges to call for the Philippine government to be more firm in its efforts to help Myanmar and its people in its quest for democracy. Let us help effect genuine changes in our neighboring countries by calling on the Burmese government to release its political detainees, particularly Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has a lot to contribute in the democratization of the country.


Suu Kyi once said, “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”


Mr. Speaker, I believe that we are in no position to deny her appeal. Let us use our liberty to promote their liberty.

[1] The term was coined by Amnesty International’s founder, civil rights lawyer Peter Benenson, who launched Amnesty International with an appeal on behalf of six prisoners of conscience.


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