In the years since the 1988 suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, the Burmese military junta committed thousands of human rights violations, including killings, torture, forced displacement, rape and political imprisonment. In 2004, exiled Burmese activists based in Thailand formed the Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND-Burma) in order to challenge the military regime through advocacy and prepare for justice and accountability measures in a potential transition. We at Benetech’s Human Rights Program have proudly supported ND-Burma on this journey since its inception.
A coalition of over ten member groups, ND-Burma has been working diligently to document ongoing and past human rights violations perpetrated by the Burmese military dictatorship. To mitigate the grave risks involved in this endeavor, ND-Burma member groups have used Martus—our free, open source secure software tool for human rights documentation.
In our nearly ten-year partnership, we have primarily focused on empowering ND-Burma to build a common framework to effectively protect and share the information they gather. This human rights information collection process, however, has involved tough challenges.
Bear in mind that ND-Burma’s operations are based in Northern and Western Thailand, near the Burma border. Many of the people working for ND-Burma and their member groups are former political prisoners, or have been otherwise exiled from their homeland, and for years it has been too dangerous for them to return to or visit the country. Because of this, there has never been a formal Martus training inside Burma.
Unfortunately, the flow of sensitive human rights information across the Burma-Thai border has been slow, sporadic and resource-intensive at best, and insecure at worst. Rapporteurs have used email, telephone and physical courier to transfer information from inside Burma to those collecting, managing and securing it using Martus in Thailand. While the risks to the information have been significant, training internal fieldworkers was considered even riskier.
Until recently, that is.
Since 2010, Burma has undergone a series of political reforms that have updated the social and political landscape to one that better recognizes human rights and political freedoms. Thousands of prisoners— of whom several hundred had been considered political prisoners—have been granted amnesty. Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her infamous house arrest and now holds a seat in the Burmese parliament. Last year, she announced her desire to run for the presidency in 2015.
The changes have been so significant that some of our ND-Burma partners have been able to visit friends and family inside Burma for the first time in decades. They have also greeted old friends who were recently released from prison after years of incarceration for participating in peaceful demonstrations.
In the light of these developments, for the first time, our partners felt comfortable planning a comprehensive Martus training in Rangoon. In late November 2013, jointly with ND-Burma, our team co-led a training of twelve people representing seven human rights groups. The training included modules on security theory, digital security tools and methods, approaches to documentation, and, of course, a deep training on using Martus.
We are honored to have been able to support ND-Burma member organizations at this memorable training and are deeply grateful for their continued partnership.
Burma remains in transition. The reformist government of President Thein Sein “is at best a work in progress,” notes Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth in a recent post about the year 2013 in human rights. The military still dominates the government and not all political prisoners have been released. At Benetech, we remain committed to supporting our partners who are pushing for truth and justice for the many victims of human rights abuses, and are excited to mark this momentous occasion in the history of our partnership. We hope the future will see a greater opening of the political space in Burma and more opportunities for trainings like this one.
As a nonprofit, Benetech’s work is made possible through support from funders. We are grateful to the Open Society Foundations and the US Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor for making the work described in this blog post possible, and to the National Endowment for Democracy for their generous support of our Burma-focused work in the past.
Note: We refer to the country as Burma, instead of Myanmar, because that is the preference of our partners.