‘Humanity is of the Utmost Importance’

By Zue Zue 17 March 2015

Dr Tha Hla Shwe, chair of the Myanmar Red Cross Society, met with The Irrawaddy’s Zu Zu to discuss the attack on a Red Cross convoy in Laukkai and the organization’s recent efforts to assert its independence from the Burmese government.

Question: Why do you think the Red Cross convoy was attacked during the Laukkai conflict?

Answer: We have held meetings to find out an answer, and so far we have not received a satisfactory answer. We assume that the Burma Army would not have shot at us, but the other side has denied responsibility. Those who shot will not confess. Let’s let bygones be bygones. For now, we’ll have to think about how to minimize the risk of attack in the future.

Q: Do you think the Red Cross convoy was attacked because it was considered to be on the government’s side?

A: It is quite hard to say. No one can say whether the attack was intentional or accidental. Since the Red Cross is an auxiliary force of the state, people misunderstand us as being the part of the government. But we are an auxiliary force of the government, limited to humanitarian works according to the 1864 Geneva Convention. Being independent is our fundamental principle. Administration and security is none of our business and we have explained this to state and divisional governments. The public will no longer see Red Cross members visiting houses at night to check if there are overnight guests staying without permission. We have asked that Red Cross members are not assigned to surprise vehicle inspections and security roles. We have officially informed that we will no longer join the parade on Armed Forces Day, starting from this year.

Q: Is the Myanmar Red Cross Society an independent organization compared to international Red Cross societies?

A: Any Red Cross society in the world can’t operate without the support of its government. It functions within the legal framework established by its government. Previously, the British and US Red Cross societies did not help us as they did not like our government. They came to Myanmar only after the country’s democratic transition began. In the past, we had difficulties in undertaking humanitarian works and we needed help, so we asked them why they did not come before. No one answered. I mean, previously their governments did not want them to come to Myanmar and they did not dare go against the will of their governments, as they are mainly funded by their governments. They came to Myanmar when their governments willingly sent them here. So there is no country in the world where the national Red Cross Society is independent of the government.

Q: Can the Myanmar Red Cross Society freely carry out humanitarian work if it depends on the government’s support?

A: The government does not ask us to do this or that, nor not to do this or that. We are allowed to function freely and we function according to rules and regulations and our principles. The government does not ask us to go somewhere and help put out a fire. Instead we go there and help out of our own awareness and will. We have to save cash contributions from the government at a bank and pay the staff with the interest. We opened a separate bank account for a rescue fund. All cash contributions from donors go to that account. None of that fund is used to pay our staff. We buy relief aid and save people with money from that account.

Q: What is the essence and function of Red Cross?

A: The very essence of Red Cross is humanity. The Red Cross spirit is helping those in danger and vulnerable people, in good faith and without expecting anything return from them. There are seven basic principles regarding the world of the Red Cross and humanity is of the utmost importance.

Q: Does the Myanmar Red Cross Society have a network with its international peers?

A: We have contact with Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in 189 countries. But, we are working more closely with our Asean peers and the Timor-Leste Red Cross in the Southeast Asian region. The Red Cross movement consists of three parts, one is national Red Cross Society, another is International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the last is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In times of crisis, we work closely with the ICRC, and in times of natural disaster, we work more closely with the IFRC.

Q: What kind of support does the Myanmar Red Cross Society give in conflict areas and what measures are taken for the security of Red Cross members?

A: We provide first aid, drinking water and foodstuffs to victims and help them with relocation. We Red Cross members are not allowed to wear bulletproof jackets. The international understanding is that Red Cross members can’t be shot. But here, we were shot at. The international humanitarian law says that staff and volunteers of the Red Cross, ICRC, IFRC, civilians, and prisoners of war can’t be shot. We have educated all armed organizations about this law as much as we possibly can.

What we can do is to inform both sides prior to our action. We have told our members not to do anything without the knowledge of township, district and state medical superintendents. If possible we would like to stay in the town and help the victims in the town. I have told our members to inform me 24 hours in advance if they are to accompany a convoy. Then, we ask the ICRC to inform relevant authorities and warring parties of our presence so that our member volunteers can be safe.

Q: Has the Red Cross emblem been misused during wartime and conflict?

A: We’ve rewritten the Red Cross Law and put forward a draft to the parliament. After the parliament has passed the law, we have to submit by-laws within 90 days. We intend to include provisions on the use of Red Cross emblem. According to Geneva Convention, the Red Cross emblem can be used officially by only two groups of people. One is Red Cross members and volunteers and another is members of military medical teams. The use of Red Cross emblem by social organizations is not legal, according to Geneva Convention. The convention does not, however, carry penalties for the misuse of the Red Cross emblem. Most countries have laws that protect Red Cross emblem and carry penalties for its misuse. We don’t have any such laws. We see private clinics hanging Red Cross emblem when in fact they are not allowed to do so.