Where is the Red Cross?

By The Irrawaddy 19 March 2015

RANGOON — The violent crackdown against peaceful demonstrators in Letpadan on Mar. 10, has led to a wave of condemnation from foreign embassies and international human rights organizations. Many students and activists facing criminal charges remain in detention, some of whom were severely beaten in the police assault.

Burma’s nominally civilian government has refused relatives and other visitors access to these detainees, and at this point it seems clear the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will be similarly prevented from checking on the health and welfare of the prisoners. It is unknown how many of those in custody have been severely injured and need medical treatment. The government has not released any reliable information on the current status of detainees, either to the public or to the ICRC.

Since the beginning of Burma’s political reform, the ICRC, international organizations and foreign diplomatic missions have been given permission to alleviate the suffering, poverty and repression faced by the people of this country. The Burmese government granted permission for the ICRC to resume prison visits in Nov. 2013, after denying access for five years. Indeed, under the military regime, the ICRC’s repeated requests to visit political prisoners in Burmese jails were almost always denied, with the exception of limited and supervised access to renowned figures such as the journalist and politician Win Tin.

While the European Union, the United States and other donor countries have publicly expressed their deep concern over the Letpadan crackdown, there has been no similar pronouncement from the ICRC or its parent organization, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. There has been no indication that the ICRC is exercising its influence behind the scenes to request access to this latest round of political detainees.

Despite a pledge by President Thein Sein to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has documented the continued incarceration of 177 people for political and land rights activism to Feb. 10 of this year. A further 213 political activists are awaiting trial in criminal proceedings. As of Tuesday this week, 102 people connected to the Letpadan protest and its aftermath remain incarcerated in Thayawady prison, with some facing criminal charges that carry a cumulative total of eight years imprisonment.

If the ICRC remains committed to the welfare of political prisoners in Burma, it must speak out and demand access to those 102 people now languishing in Thayawady. For its part, after losing the public’s confidence in the sheer ferocity of the Letpadan attack, the government should consider how it can strive to win back the trust of its people. Granting the ICRC immediate and unimpeded access to these prisoners would be a commendable start.