November 15, 2019
Dear Ambassador Schmidt,
Thank you for your correspondence on November 12. Just as you charge me with misrepresenting the EU’s efforts, you misrepresent my concerns which led me to withdraw from the My Justice event in Rangoon. I wish to make clear to you I withdrew my work in protest of your recent actions and the EU’s hypocrisy in Burma, not at the work of my fellow artists and the My Justice staff and their efforts.
Your letter fails to adequately address the concerns I raised in my public statement, which makes it clear that you are the diplomat and I am the artist. I won’t be bullied or beguiled by your diplomatic dishonesty, or be diverted into a private exchange. Please don’t think you can silence me with a private phone call. Let’s have this exchange in public: the people of Burma deserve the truth. I haven’t publically released your letter but urge you to make it public. Hiding behind diplomatic convention only helps abusers in Burma, I believe. Unlike you, I have a long history of observing how foreigners have been duped by the Burmese military. I see that in ambassadors, investors, and in the dishonest greed of so many people in the peace industry who have done untold damage to local efforts to promote peace.
You laud your achievements to support efforts at accountability in Burma, but fail to fully realize that these merely perfunctory measures in Brussels – in response to genocidal acts against the Rohingya – will be largely ineffectual. There should be a public, EU parliamentary investigation into the cognitive dissonance that exists in the EU’s support for the formation of the UN Fact Finding Mission and the subsequent undermining of the FFM findings and recommendations by endorsing the work of the UEHRD. Yes, your voluntary participation in the UEHRD’s second anniversary event in October is an endorsement of its work. The UEHRD is nothing more than a cover-up, a state-led effort to sanitize a crime scene. Posing alongside representatives of this abusive government in a group photo sends the message that they ‘got away with it’ – by ‘it’, I refer to crimes against humanity. That is what the EU Council of Ministers should be considering.
You assert that My Justice is addressing ‘deep-rooted problems and historical grievances that the Myanmar society needs to confront in order to move forward on a solid, collective footing.’ Yet it’s not on solid or collective footing. There are so many communities who continue to be systematically marginalized, brutalized and objectified in Burma. The failure to acknowledge that is perpetuating uneven justice in Burma, in all of the places the government does not let you go – places that neither you nor your colleagues understand. This reaches into the past, the present, and seemingly, the future.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) announced on November 14 the opening of an investigation into the crimes against the Rohingya. It’s not the work of the ICC to investigate the complicity of the diplomatic community and international organizations in assisting the Burmese state in the concealment of mass atrocities. But it is the role of public opinion and parliaments, and I urge a full and complete investigation into what the EU — and other international actors — have really done in their engagement with the state, their funding choices, and and their economic policies, and not simply count the symbolic measures you outline.
It must be remembered that during the Ne Win era, it was West Germany who supplied the Burmese military — the Tatmadaw – with weapons. In recent years, German and Austrian companies have supplied the Tatmadaw with dual-use technology, including but not limited to drones. Senior EU military officials have visited Naypyidaw to liaise with the Tatmadaw. The EU hides behind its arms embargo but continues to find ways to engage with these war criminals,
The EU’s work on building peace and accountability in Burma largely can be described as showering money on things that don’t work. You continue to unquestionably support the Joint Peace Fund (JPF). This entity works to support the agenda of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and the Tatmadaw, which relegates the genuine peace and democratic federalism demanded by ethnic communities a distant priority. The humanitarian situation in conflict zones has sharply deteriorated in recent years, exhaustively documented by the FFM and local human rights groups, women’s organizations, community-based activists, and brave journalists. This hard and dangerous work continues to be overshadowed through the privileging of elite, showboat programs in fancy showrooms in Rangoon.
Your support of a failing peace process also has a family connection for me. My uncle, Harn Yawnghwe, has since 2011 been deeply involved in the peace process. This follows years of tireless work helping communities in exile and inside Burma through the Euro-Burma Office. Yet the NLD government refuses to grant Harn a visa, despite having served the cause of peace for so many years. And yet, the EU is designating even more money toward supporting the failing JPF? How do you explain this to Burma’s public?
Do you take into account how civilians in Kachin, Shan, Karen, Karenni, and Rakhine states feel about this lavish support? In its funding strategy, the EU has clearly taken the government’s side. It appears there is ‘my justice’ and ‘your justice’, which to civilians in savage war zones is really ‘no justice.’ And this is at the heart of my decision to withdraw from the My Justice event in Rangoon and make public my protest.
I notice your letter comes to me from the 6th Floor of the Hledan Center in Rangoon. You’re still there, but have announced an intention to move at the end of next year. Why such delays? Are you utterly unaware of the criticism over several years as to the EU’s decision to rent that space from notorious crony company Asia World? I would have thought the FFM’s report would have spurred you to vacate fast, but obviously not.
It’s your continued renting of the residence owned by Ne Win’s family that is particularly personal for me. That man and his repressive system took a huge personal toll on me, my family, and my community. My uncle was killed by soldiers on the night of Ne Win’s 1962 coup d’etat. My grandfather, Burma’s first President Sao Shwe Thaik, was thrown in prison, tortured, deprived of medical treatment and died from this ill treatment. The Saopha of Hsipaw also disappeared that night, and other prominent ethnic leaders and intellectuals were arrested and imprisoned.
You may claim that since Ne Win is dead – yes, he passed away in 2002 – and that his family is not directly involved in politics, renting his residence is no big deal. You privilege your personal comfort over the sensitivities of the people of Burma who suffered under that dictator and continue to suffer under his legacy. Every time you drive back to your blood-drenched residence on Ady Road you may look forward to the pool and the peacocks, but you’re also hiding away from the truth of Burmese suffering, from the complete lack of justice for the many crimes of that monster and the cruel and ultra-nationalist institution he created, the Tatmadaw.
Obviously you’re inspiring others, I see there will be a ‘Great British Party’ hosted by the UK’s Ambassador to Burma at the end of the month next door to your residence.
You may disagree, Mr Ambassador, but the signals that you, the EU, and many other diplomats are sending publically are that you will continue to support business as usual for the Burmese government and the military.
How will the people of Burma ever be able to build the country they have been fighting for if institutions like yours are unwilling to prioritize their rights over economic interests?
Yawnghwe Office in Exile