Human Rights without Borders from Now and Then

In the spirit of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and #16Days of Activism, Asia Justice and Rights is organizing the Myanmar Human Rights Festival, from 2-30 December 2023 at the Chiang Mai University Art Center. The festival aims to promote mutual understanding, dialogue, and human rights advocacy throughout Myanmar and beyond, collaborating with Doh Hlay, The LinQ Foundation, The Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), Friends Without Borders Foundation, and SEM.

SEM co-hosted a panel discussion on “Human Rights without Borders” on December 2 with four experienced and respected panelists, including Aung Htun, Khun Billy, Sunai Phasuk, and Pim Koetsawang, sharing their insightful perspectives on the human rights issue.

After the screening of films depicting the human rights abuses in Myanmar after the coup, Aung Htun, who has a background in journalism and filmmaking for Burma VJ, discussed the vital role that films play in supporting and educating people on human rights issues, both in Myanmar and globally and he also discussed effective methods for using films to spread messages to a broader audience. 

He stressed the importance of providing audiences with clear takeaways in pro-human rights films to ensure that the messages are carried forward from the cinema to the community. He noted that in his experience, it is sometimes difficult for others from the different contexts of Myanmar to understand what the pro-human rights films are trying to convey.

It is important for filmmakers to explore how to move the human rights issues in the country to the wider community.

Pim Koetsawang, Founder and Director of the Friends Without Borders Foundation, shared that there have been refugees and forced migrants living in Thailand for decades, prior to both the coup d’état and the 1988 uprising. In addition, there have been internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Karen and Karenni areas of Burma’s eastern border near Thailand since the 1970s. For decades, people have struggled with displacement, and their situation was gradually forgotten after the NLD government came to power in 2015. However, the past 3 years situation made the calmer down and almost forgotten issue turn back to the explosion.

She pointed out that a large number of people seeking refuge in Thailand is not a new phenomenon and this is not the first time that we host our friends here. Yet, the details are much different due to the characteristics of people from now and then, the modern technology, both in terms of military strategy, and people’s strategy to communicate to the world and ask for help. Or even the landscape of transnational business, crimes, and relationships that are associated with armed organizations and authorities along the Myanmar-Thai border.

However, it seems that there’s more empathy between the people compared to the governmental level which does not yet see the ‘human’ point and the ‘rights’ point.

Importantly, the speaker emphasized the need for all individuals dealing with humanitarian aid, legal aid, research, human rights advocacy, legal advocacy, and the like to consistently view all displaced persons and migrants from a human rights perspective. Stressing both the words ‘human’ and ‘rights’ is crucial. Because oftentimes, the refugees are seen as only a ‘subject’ of an order, a policy, a research, a project, or a program, to be grouped and put in boxes as if they were different color-beads. Their rights and dignity were also drowned under the surface picture of ‘victims’ who only need help. It became a story of mercy and protectors, rather than respect, empathy, and dignity.

As a final point, Pim concluded that we should stop categorizing people based on legal definitions and instead offer support and protection for those who are suffering due to their background persecutions:

“I do believe we all need to liberate ourselves so that we are able to support others ‘ liberation.’”

Human Rights without BordersPanel Discussion/ cr. Orraya Chawnan

Moving the conversation to the Myanmar-India border, Khun Billy a Chin professional researcher who is deeply familiar with the socio-cultural context of Myanmar and Northeast India, mentioned that

he rarely sees the films, documentaries, or international news that tell the struggling stories of the people in northwest Myanmar and northeast India areas.

He said there are refugee camps in Mizoram and Manipur in India, but there’re different policies and different treatment from each state. The living conditions of the refugees there are not much different from the refugees in Thailand, the resources are very limited, the lack of access to education and health care, and the security concerns. He explained more about the security threats they face from the Indian authorities, such as arrest, deportation back to Myanmar, and forced collection of biometric information.

And unfortunately, last April there was a communal conflict in Manipur and people put the blame on many Myanmar refugees who were caused by this conflict and that’s why they were forced to leave the state of Manipur and they had to be relocated again and again.

We can clearly see that even India is a big democratic country, they do not really follow the human rights standard. Importantly, Khun Billy emphasized that this is the reason why we have to respect and promote human rights without borders. Also, we have to think about how we can report or document the situation of the people in these areas and how we can advocate for international human rights institutions to put more pressure on the Indian government.

Human Rights without BordersPanel Discussion/ cr. Orraya Chawnan

Comparing the pro-democracy movement between Myanmar and Thailand, Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, shared that the people of the two countries are both inspired by each other to stand up for freedom, democracy, and human rights against the dictatorship regime. And the movements in both countries show that they sympathize more with each other, support each other, and have a lot in common, such as the famous three-finger salute and how to protect ourselves from the tear gas or violent crackdown etc. In the Thai movement, we can also see the campaign standing with Myanmar democracy or the Myanmar people joining the street protest with Thai friends as well. These kinds of lessons show the cross-border elements that we share the fighting spirit together, and these are even more profound among the people.

Now, the landscape of the street movement in Thailand seems to be quiet after the recent election, and it tends to rely on the parliamentary system. Even though we have an elected government, unfortunately, the current Thai government has no policy at all to address human rights across the border and elsewhere.

He mentioned that his office just had a chance to send a long list of human rights agendas to the government, including the human rights violations in Myanmar. The government has just received the agendas, but what’s next is still in question. He also said that what he sees is that this government will continue to engage formally and informally with the Myanmar military regime. They will continue to track 1.5 without the representatives of NUG, PDF, or ethnic groups. Or even the National Screening Mechanism that Thailand has developed to provide the protected status for refugees, so far there’s no one applying for that because no one sees any hope that this mechanism can really help them. So now everything relies more on cross-border friendship and family connections.

To answer the point of the Refugee Convention, even Thailand does not ratify this convention, but Sunai suggested that we still have other laws that can be applied such as a non-refoulement in the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act B.E. 2565.

In conclusion, Sunai emphasized that we must continue to press the Thai government,

not only to uphold human rights in Thailand but also across the border. We need to work harder and be more creative to bring the world’s attention back to Myanmar.