CUPE local 2440, with support from the Global Justice fund, is in year three of a project supporting Human Rights Defender organizations in cooperation with Cuso International. In January, Marian White, local 2440 member and co-chair of the Global Justice Committee, and Rhonda Spence, CUPE International Officer, travelled to Thailand to meet with Burmese organizations working on the Thai/Burma border.
The purpose of the visit was to gain an understanding of the situation for Burmese activists working to record human rights abuses inside of Burma, and their campaign to end the military dictatorship and build a democratic state.
The CUPE tour went to Chiang Mai in the north east of the country and to Mae Sot on the border with Burma. With support from CUPE, Cuso International supports a number of Burmese human rights, women’s, environmental and youth organizations. These groups coordinate to document and publicize the dire situation of ordinary Burmese citizens. They are building a campaign calling for the UN to hold a Commission of Inquiry into gross human rights violations, specifically ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘war crimes’ in Burma. Canada and 13 other countries have indicated support for such an inquiry but there is need for more support and a more concerted international effort to make this happen.
On the ground, CUPE support goes a long way in assisting these activists to build their network, share skills and to break down ethnic barriers to build a more unified movement. CUPE staff was impressed with the efforts of Cuso International in using limited resources very strategically. Most of the organizations operate without legal recognition in Thailand and many of the activists are undocumented. This means that there is a need to operate ‘under the radar’ as the Thai authorities are not necessarily sympathetic.
In total we met with 10 different organizations:
Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED)
Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND-Burma)
Burmese Women’s Union (BWU)
Nationalities Youth Forum (NYForum)
Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB)
Shwe Gas Movement (SGM)
Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT)
Burma Issues (BI)
Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP)
Ta’ang Students and Youth Organisation (TSYO)
Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG)
Federation of Trade Unions Kawthoolei (FTUK)
Most of these groups work together through Network for Human Rights Documentation Burma to develop common strategies. CUPE’s funds have been used for training workshops attached to network meetings – like video documentation.
Members from these groups take great risks when they travel inside Burma to record what is going on. The majority do not have legal documents – either Burmese or Thai. Some of them have refugee status and live in the refugee camps in Mae Sot and are therefore eligible for resettlement. The resettlement of activists means there is a constant need to train new activists.
There are thousands of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand who, without documentation, are forced to endure terrible working conditions in the factories that have sprung up along the border. The situation for migrant workers is something that most organizations identified as an area that needs to be addressed.
Currently there are over 2,500 documented political prisoners in Burma. The AAPP, staffed entirely by former prisoners, works to obtain their release and provides essential support to both the prisoners and their families. They have an amazing museum that graphically illustrates conditions; including photographs of every prisoner and even a model of the prisons, their locations and a recreated jail cell. It was a very difficult and moving experience to hear their individual stories. Hear podcast with former political prisoner and current Cuso International volunteer Aung Khaing Min at http://marianwhite-Cuso International.mypodcastworld.com/
The major investment in Burma of countries like China and India make the situation extremely difficult to resolve. Major pipelines and a new economic free trade zone are about to be built. The military dictatorship is quite willing to continue to force people off their land to make way for foreign mega-projects and to continue with forced labour. There has been some headway made on forced labour by the ILO office in Rangoon but it is minimal.
The final tour activity was a workshop with the organizations that expressed interest in taking the ‘lead’ role in communicating and working with CUPE. Two youth organizations are keen to work on this so we developed an action plan for the next year. It is hoped that we can bring at least one of the youth representatives to the national convention in Vancouver. The enthusiasm and commitment was truly remarkable and humbling.
The CUPE delegation was impressed with the work of Tracey Martin, Director of the VSO Thai/Burma program. She has a clear vision of what works and has great respect for the Burmese activists. We believe that CUPE’s modest funds of support make a real difference.
- written by Marian White