William Davis Testifies on Burma Before Canadian House of Commons

Testimony of William Davis, MA, MPH, Burma Project Director, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Before the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the House of Commons

(Ottawa, Ontario, Canada—Thursday, May 10, 2012)

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"Good afternoon, Chairman Reid, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for extending an invitation to Physicians for Human Rights to testify about the human rights situation in Burma. It is an honor to testify before you today.

I would like to submit my full written statement as well as our report on Kachin State, and an update on human rights violations in Kachin State from the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand. I ask that they will be ordered part of the record.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an independent, non-profit organization that uses medical and scientific expertise to investigate human rights violations and advocate for justice, accountability, and the health and dignity of all people. We are supported by the expertise and passion of health professionals and concerned citizens alike.

PHR has been investigating human rights violations against Burmese civilians, dissidents, minorities, and refugees since 2004. As Burma Project Director for PHR, I have conducted investigations in Burma’s rural areas, including in Kachin, Karen and Shan States, and in most countries bordering Burma. I have written a report titled Under Siege in Kachin State, Burma, which documents the human rights and humanitarian situation in that area of renewed conflict. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you today.

Burma has made a lot of news headlines lately. There have been extensive discussions among policymakers as well as in the international media about the changes that appear to be bringing Burma from a pariah state to a country on a path to genuine democracy. It is true that there have been some changes – in Rangoon, for example, people are now allowed greater media freedoms, and iconic Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirts and memorabilia are no longer forbidden. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate even sits in Parliament, and several hundred of her fellow political prisoners have been released.

While these changes are important, the same problems that have plagued the people of Burma for decades – including rampant forced labor, attacks on civilians, the use of landmines, and lasting impunity for those who commit heinous human rights violations – these problems continue to this day.

The Burmese Army continues to attack civilians in ethnic areas, especially in Kachin State where an estimated 75,000 civilians remain displaced. The Government of Burma until very recently has blocked access of humanitarian groups to this vulnerable population, thereby further exacerbating the precarious condition of those displaced. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP) has confirmed that 471 political prisoners remain in jail today. An additional 475 prisoners are still being verified. Prisoners of conscience who were released earlier this year have not been given amnesty by the government and they could be sent back to jail at any time, and arrests are continuing. March saw the highest number of arrests in two years: including 43 people have been jailed in relation to development projects for things like refusing forced relocation orders and for distributing T-shirts protesting a gas pipeline. The Government of Burma also continues to violate human rights in other areas, and remains dominated by a military that is not subject to any institutional accountability mechanism that could punish or deter crimes.

Burma’s ethnic minorities make up nearly a third of the country’s population, and they continue to bear the brunt of the military’s crimes. Minority groups remain extremely skeptical of the changes in Burma, and for good reason. Ethnic people have faced abuse and oppression by the Burmese government for more than 60 years, and they are understandably reluctant to embrace the announced changes coming from their government without concrete and credible improvements and meaningful accountability for the Burmese Army. They do not trust the government, and they so far have not benefitted from the changes in Burma.

I have interviewed Karen, Shan, Mon, Kachin, Chin, Arakan, and Burman people inside Burma and in most of the countries along its borders. From all of them I’ve heard a common theme, “We want to go home but we’re still afraid of the government”.

Indeed, in Kachin State I spoke with one man who was forced to walk in front of Burmese army troops to clear the path of landmines. I interviewed several more who had been forced to carry weapons and supplies for the Burmese Army. These abuses are not new: a grandfather told me how the Burmese Army tried to drown his wife in a bucket of water in the 1970s. Last year when the ceasefire in Kachin failed, he and his wife fled, not wanting to re-live the experience. The past and continuing abuses do not bode well for future reconciliation: a 15 year old Kachin boy who had been forced to guide Burmese Army troops between villages was scared and angry at the Army. He told me he wanted to join a Kachin insurgent group so he could fight the Burmese.

In the months since I was in Kachin State, I have been in regular contact with groups there who are monitoring the human rights situation as well as ongoing humanitarian needs. They have told me that human rights abuses are continuing and, as more civilians are displaced, the need for international humanitarian aid is increasing.

Before the 2010 elections in Burma, development and humanitarian relief programs in ethnic areas were funded mainly through groups operating outside the fold of the Burmese government. This was because the central government blocked aid to conflict areas and made it clear that it was not interested in helping ethnic people.

Since the 2010 election, the Burmese government has talked of starting development projects in ethnic areas, and in response some donor countries are shifting their funds from community-based groups operating in ethnic and border regions to groups working deeper inside the country. This is not a trade-off and the shift is premature. The talk of development from Naypidaw thus far is just talk, and the only effects felt in ethnic areas are the decreases in aid. It is not yet clear if the central government in Burma actually intends to serve the needs of ethnic people or not. If it does, starting development programs will take some time, and community-based organizations that are already running these programs should continue to receive funding until a system is in place for them to work in partnership with Naypidaw. The ethnic leaders I have spoken with are willing to cooperate with the government to promote the welfare of their people.

Community-based groups work inside the country and receive only funding and supplies from across international borders. They have been serving their people for decades and they already have the human resources, expertise, and local trust to implement development programs. Pulling their funding will disempower these communities and force them to rely of the central government for support. This is dangerous. When the central government reorganized state governments in 2008, it failed to establish ministries of health or education in Chin State. The central government has not convinced ethnic peoples that it is trustworthy enough to provide aid for them.

I heard several examples of this when I interviewed Chin refugees in India. I asked them if they would go back to Burma now that the government is changing and they all told me that they would not. They are not yet convinced that the government will not harm them and they are choosing to remain as exiles. Most Chin people I spoke with said that they left Burma because they feared the military and did not feel safe there—and they do not yet feel that it is safe to return. A Chin man told me that the Burmese government had deceived him his whole life, and that he doesn’t believe them when they say they are now a democracy. He said he will only return when the generals are no longer in power. Another man told me “Democracy is Burma is not for Chin people, it is not for the ethnics.” Others said, “There is still no freedom in Chin State.”

Lastly, I want to comment on the situation of the Rohingya. A Muslim minority in Western Burma, they remain one of the most heavily persecuted groups in that country. They do not have citizenship, and they suffer from forced labor, forced migration, restrictions on movement, and several other human rights violations. Now, it appears that they will be excluded from the planned 2014 census. This will further marginalize them. If the changes in Burma are slow to reach other ethnic groups, the Rohingya will be the last to feel any benefit from change. This group should be the measure of progress of human rights in Burma.

The government of Burma has done much to convince the international community that it has changed, but it has yet to convince its own people. Generations of human rights abuses cannot be erased after just two elections in Burma. Even if the government’s intentions are honorable, it will take a long time to build trust with its own ethnic people. Promoting development and allowing aid into ethnic areas is a start. Stopping abuses, pursuing reparative justice and acknowledging that abuses have happened would go much further. The government of Burma should continue its reforms and the international community should support and encourage them.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Members of the Committee, in closing I would like to share with you some specific recommendations which my organization has been advocating.


There international community is faced with some important decisions regarding policy toward Burma. While some may celebrate the recent changes in Burma, I urge you to remain cautious and consider what impact these changes have had on people living in rural Burma. Because human rights violations, impunity for those who commit them, and military hierarchy continue to mark Burma’s internal policies, we as the international community should do what we can to encourage more substantive improvements that will have a lasting positive impact on all people of Burma.

In order to ensure that Burma’s future is one decided by its people – including ethnic minorities – I recommend that the Government of Canada use its influence to press for the following reforms in Burma:

  1. An end to gross violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law, including an end to attacks on civilians;
  2. Meaningful collective negotiations that lead to a political settlement with ethnic nationality groups;
  3. Unfettered humanitarian access to people in need in areas of conflict;
  4. Release of all remaining political prisoners; and
  5. Constitutional reform that will enable a civilian government to hold the military accountable.

I also recommend that the Government of Canada commit to the following:

  1. Ensure that the list of individuals and entities still sanctioned under the Burma Regulations is updated, broad, and includes those individuals who have profited from human rights violations such as forced labor and displacement.
  2. Continue providing assistance to support displaced persons, refugees and migrants from Burma along its borders. There has been an impulse by some in the international community to limit assistance to the border regions, but the need is great and I urge you to increase your support for communities in need in these areas.

Mr. Chairman, Members of this Committee, I thank you for your attention and I am ready to answer any questions you may have for me."

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