The Irrawaddy News
Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, spoke to The Irrawaddy on a wide range of issues including the role of the United Nations in Burma, the humanitarian crisis and targeted economic sanctions. She was in Bangkok in late July with US actress and activist Mia Farrow as part of a Nobel Woman’s Initiative Delegation tour of trouble areas in the world.
Question: You have been very critical of the UN.
Answer: I don’t think the UN likes me a lot, but I recognise a need for something like the UN. However, I think it’s really time to reform the UN. When it cannot respond to crises like the [Burma] cyclone, when it cannot respond to the crisis of dictatorship there for 50 years, when it cannot respond to the crisis in Darfur, I find it ethically impossible to pretend that they’re doing a great job.
I understand the constraints, but let’s talk about reality and let’s not dismiss the voices of the Burmese people themselves. And yes, they get uncomfortable and yes, they don’t like it, but nothing changes unless you raise the level of discomfort.
Even when you want to change, it’s hard. Even when a person chooses to change, it’s hard. A massive institution that has 60 years of bureaucracy and ineptness and self preservation is not going to change unless people like me and people like Mia [Farrow] challenge it in public. At the same time, it is the institution that exists. And when I said that Mia and I were going to go to New York during the General Assembly to raise our voices and to raise issues that we heard about here and work with the women of Burma.
Q: UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari is going to visit Burma soon. What is your message to him?
A: He is just doing his job. My message would be to the UN, to the secretary-general and the Security Council. Accepting that the Burmese junta has now allowed Gambari to meet with Daw Aung San Su Kyi is a fig leaf, there is no change happening and this is pretty typical of the way the international community deals with conflict.
Something happens, everybody get agitated, they respond and then a dictatorship will give a meaningless response showing flexibility and everybody claps their hands. When we go to New York, I’m going to request a meeting with the secretary-general, closed door. It doesn’t have to be public, and I’m going to speak very firmly.
Q: What will be your main message to the secretary-general if you meet with him?
A: Exactly all of the things I’ve just said. And I’m going to express my extreme dismay, sadness, anger at saying that the roadmap is a great way forward. The roadmap is the worst way forward. The roadmap is accepting the lies, the fake referendum, the questionable reform of the constitution, excluding people who won the election. I’m going to say that in my view, that is a recipe for disaster. That is not going to bring about sustainable peace, and we don’t support that. That the people of Burma that I have spoken to don’t support that. And while I recognise that his job is to work with the government, how can he justify that?
Q: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the international community not to politicize the humanitarian issue during the Cyclone Nargis crisis. What’s your view on this?
A: What aren’t we supposed to politicize about a civil war that’s been going on for 50 years? We’re not supposed to politicize the very political issue of theft of international aid from the cyclone survivors? We’re not supposed to politicize that? What are we supposed to do? Clap because it goes into the hands of the junta? His job is to work with governments of the world. Thankfully, it’s not my job. It’s my job to question him, it’s my job to push him, and it’s my job to say, ‘How dare you! How can you say it’s not political?
How can you say the delivery of aid to one of the biggest disasters to hit Burma is not a political issue when you’re putting it into the hands of the same junta that has been repressing the people for decades” And you’re supposed to call that not a political issue? I have no problem saying it to them. I mean he’s just a human being. I’m not impressed by titles. I mean it’s great that he’s the secretary-general, but he’s just a human being. I recognise he has to do his job. But I’m a human being, and I have to do my job and it’s my job to question what the hell he’s doing.
Q: What did you learn from your trip to the Burma border?
A: I haven’t been to Burma since February 2003. Given all of the development recently, given Su Kyi’s repeated imprisonment every year when she should be set free, we wanted to come back and meet with people who are on the border, since we can’t go inside Burma. And particularly because it’s the Nobel Women’s Initiative, see what women’s organizations are doing, see what young women are doing to empower themselves. It’s fantastic and the people who inspire me are not the famous ones, I mean I love some of them, but I’m inspired by the women I met on the border, who live in precarious circumstances, who live undocumented, who could be deported at any time, who if sent back, could be imprisoned or worse.
And yet, they fight for their rights, they fight to be recognised as political women inside their organizations, they fight for democratic prospects in Burma, they fight for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, they fight for the release of the 2000 political prisoners. I want to take their message. They asked us to do that, and I have every intention to. I also am extremely excited to hear that a delegation of some of those women are coming to the UN in September/October and Mia and I and the Nobel Women’s Initiative are able to work with them for advocacy at the UN. We’ll hold a press conference, we’ll probably hold a forum where we can all speak, we’ll speak about our experience but more, we’ll them a platform because they’re from here. It has made me even more inspired.
Q: What do you think about the situation of Burmese migrant women living in
A: I think for me as an American, because Americans only care about America more or less, I’ll probably try to link it with the terrible immigration and migrant worker problems we have in the US. You know the racism, the exploitation. When they come they’re undocumented, sometimes when they come they’re not paid and then they’re thrown across the border when the employers are sick of them. So, I’ll probably make that linkage to make it more real to the people in the US.
Q: More Burmese women want to become involved in political and developmental work, but there are fewer resources to educate Burmese women and give them more confidence. In your view, how can they be supported?
A: The most I can do is try to talk with the political people in Thailand in the ministry of education and the ministry of welfare, who have been supportive, to allow women here to have education. But I’ve been very impressed that they’re not waiting here for people to give them an education; they’re educating themselves. The most I can do is advocate for an opening up of the system.
Q: Some of Burma’s neighbours, such as Thailand, India and China, have big trading interests with the Burmese regime. They also support a non-interference policy in Burma’s internal affairs.
A: I think capitalism sucks, whether it’s American capitalism or Asian capitalism. The reality is that we have to find ways to work with them, that it’s in their long-term self interest. Back in the 30s, it was FDR that made them realise that if they gave workers enough money to live, if they gave them mortgages so they’d be enslaved for 30 years to pay off the mortgage, they’d have a fairly stable and prosperous workforce.
This region is going to blow up unless it can be a little more forward thinking. I’m happy to talk to them about enlightened self interest, that’s all they care about. I’ll use all the tools I can, but I’m only one woman.
It’s not the way I operate obviously. I’m happy to interfere. Given that that is the style of this region, we have to find ways within that style to bring about change. I mean congratulating Thailand for its sensitivity about the people of Burma and people here.
Government’s like to be congratulated when they do something good, and I realise that this is a very shallow good. You know it’s all a game. But sometimes the game works. I certainly can’t go knocking on the door of China telling them to renounce their position of non- interference, but I think all of the pressure on China has done that. They themselves don’t say suddenly, ‘I’m transformed’ but they’re afraid of the public spotlight, afraid of the pressure. They have started doing things a little differently.
Q: Do you support targeted sanctions?
A: I support targeted sanctions. It’s one tool but the problem is that it’s going to take many different tools on many different levels to make Burma change. All I can say is that I’m committed to being with Burma until there’s change. The Nobel Women’s Initiative is committed to being with the women of Burma until there’s change, and I will do all I can at different levels.
You know one of the things about the Nobel Prize is that you have access. I will use that access to advocate change in Burma.
Q: There was talk about a humanitarian intervention after Cyclone Nargis and/or an effort to change of regime.
A: I am not a fan of humanitarian intervention. I mean look at the US’s great humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan and the “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq.
Q: What are your thoughts on the debate about humanitarian assistance going inside the country or outside to the border regions?
A: I think the people of Burma, whether they’re inside or forced outside, deserve aid. There’s always donor fatigue. I didn’t go into the refugee camps myself so I can’t talk about that.
I think that what would be most helpful to the people I met with would be some legalization of their status in Thailand so that they can work freely without fear, change jobs like any normal person can change jobs, so they’re not tied to their work card, so they can have access to education, and the children can have access to education and healthcare. I think that’s what I would be calling for, not humanitarian intervention. I think Thailand should be even more sensitive in helping the [Burmese] people here.