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FT-BURMA: Red Cross prison visits c
- Subject: FT-BURMA: Red Cross prison visits c
- From: tinkyi@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Thu, 03 Jun 1999 21:04:00
Subject: FT-BURMA: Red Cross prison visits criticised
Asia-Pacific June 3 1999
BURMA: Red Cross prison visits criticised
By Ted Bardacke in Rangoon
The recent renewal of prison visits in Burma by the International Committee
of the Red Cross - widely hailed as a rare positive development in the
military-ruled country - has been denounced by opposition leader Aung San
Suu Kyi as a "tragedy".
Last month, after several years of painstaking negotiations with the
military junta, the ICRC was allowed to begin making private visits to
detention centres around Burma, leading many analysts to speak of a possible
breakthrough on human rights conditions in the country.
But at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy, Ms Suu Kyi
said "hundreds" of political prisoners were transferred out of Rangoon's
notorious Insein prison before the ICRC's initial visit there on May 6. Many
were transferred to far-flung provincial jails and some prisoners remained
unaccounted for, she said.
"This created tremendous hardship," Ms Suu Kyi said, explaining that as the
food and medical care received by Burmese political prisoners was
inadequate, prisoners depended on visits from family members for basic
"This kind of transfer is sometimes a matter of life or death for our party
members," she said.
Ms Suu Kyi's denunciation of the ICRC's work methods comes during a debate
about if and how humanitarian aid should be administered to the desperately
poor military dictatorship.
Many critics argue that even the most basic aid can strengthen a regime that
spends at least 40 per cent of its national budget on the military and just
a pittance on social welfare. Others see aid as a way to engage the junta
and hope to use the promise of aid to entice the junta into loosening
political control and halting blatant human rights abuses.
Ms Suu Kyi does not oppose humanitarian assistance, but she does demand that
humanitarian groups consult the NLD on their action plans. United Nations
agencies working in Burma routinely undertake informal discussions with NLD
leaders, discussions that can irritate the government.
"If the ICRC had consulted us earlier we could have pointed out the fact
that the government had started to transfer our prisoners and they should
demand that this stop as a condition for inspecting these prisons," she
An ICRC official in Geneva admitted that staff in Rangoon did not hear about
the transfer allegations until after the May 6 visit took place. But the
official said the ICRC had not consulted Ms Suu Kyi in order to build
confidence with the military authorities - and that even if it had received
prior information about the transfers, mentioning them before visits began
could have scuttled the entire prison visits agreement.
"To reach our objectives, including pointing out to authorities that family
visits are important both materially and psychologically, we need to work
inside the prisons. This is a process that can't produce results in a few
weeks but over the medium and long term," the ICRC official said.
The official added that, after hearing about the transfer allegations, ICRC
staff mentioned them to the authorities and asked to visit the prisoners in
the areas they had been transferred to, a discussion that itself carried the
risk of alienating the regime.
"It was already a big deal that we spoke to them about this," the official