International Red Cross charges Myanmar government with abuses

The international Red Cross on Friday accused Myanmar government of abusing civilians and detainees and causing "immense suffering." It was a rare departure from organization’s usual diplomatic restraint.

The government's practice of making thousands of detainees serve as porters for the armed forces exposes them to the dangers of combat and other risks, said the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It also cited repeated abuses by the military against men, women and children living along the Thai-Myanmar border, including the large-scale destruction of food supplies.

Usually the ICRC complains confidentially to governments about such abuses, leading to criticism of the neutral agency for failing to disclose severe violations. Its silence during the Holocaust was an extreme case, but more recently it was criticized for failing to go public with its knowledge of U.S. abuses in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

"For almost two years we have tried confidential dialogue" with Myanmar officials, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said, in explaining why the neutral agency had decided to go public.

In general, the ICRC finds confidential dialogue with authorities to be the best way to get access to people in need of protection and assistance, such as detainees and civilians during war, Kellenberger said.

But the military junta that rules Myanmar, also known as Burma, refused to engage in serious talks, Kellenberger told a small group of reporters.

"Last August, I wrote to the head of the leadership, and said I wanted to come to Myanmar, and I wanted to discuss with them our concerns," Kellenberger said, referring to Senior Gen. Than Shwe. "I didn't even get an answer."

The ICRC had repeatedly complained to the government about the abuses, "but the authorities have failed to put a stop to them," he said.

Kellenberger said he found the practice of using 2,000-3,000 detainees a year as porters to carry heavy loads for the military to be "particularly repulsive."

"In dangerous environments - for example, when there are minefields - they have to go ahead. They are a type of human minesweepers, which I find terrible," he said.

"The actions of the authorities have also resulted in immense suffering for thousands of people in conflict-affected areas," he added.

The military has severely restricted freedom of movement in combat areas along the Thai-Myanmar border, "making it impossible for many villagers to work in their fields."

The armed forces have also committed "numerous acts of violence," including murder, against civiliansin these areas, the ICRC said. "They have also forced villagers to directly support military operations or to leave their homes."

The United Nations and Western countries have long accused the junta of human rights abuses, but this was the first time the ICRC had been so direct.

The agency has complained in recent months about government restrictions on its work, such as forcing the closure of ICRC offices in the field.

Myanmar's military government regularly rejects allegations of rights abuses and says it is making progress toward democracy.

Kellenberger said even though the ICRC decided to go public about Myanmar, other countries have similarly bad records, but that there is more flexibility for the ICRC to work.

The ICRC said it had based its complaints on observations made by ICRC delegates and numerous allegations of abuse collected by the ICRC during private interviews with thousands of civilians and detainees.

"Many detainees used as porters have suffered from exhaustion and malnutrition and been subjected to degrading treatment," it said. "Some have been murdered."

Kellenberger said that to make matters worse, the government has imposed increasingly severe restrictions on ICRC staff, making it impossible for them move independently and hampering the delivery of humanitarian aid.

"Since late 2005 the authorities have also prevented the ICRC from visiting places of detention in accordance with its usual procedures, which include carrying out private interviews with detainees," the agency said.

Kellenberger said the government's attempt to have observers on prisoner visits also means the ICRC will be unable to have a repeat meeting with Myanmar's most prominent detainee, Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest.

The ICRC last visited Suu Kyi in 2003. She has spent more than 11 of the past 18 years in detention.

The U.S. State Department said Thursday that Eric John, a deputy assistant secretary of state, met Tuesday in Beijing with Myanmar's ministers of foreign affairs, culture and information to urge the release of Suu Kyi.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said, however, "I don't think we saw anything coming out of them that would indicate, unfortunately, that they had changed their basic opinions."

Myanmar's military took power in 1988 after crushing democracy demonstrations. When Suu Kyi's party won a general election by a landslide in 1990, junta leaders refused to hand over power, insisting the country first needed a new constitution.