Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

The plight of Burma’s political prisoners was among the principal issues raised by Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, after his five-day mission to the country last month.

Quintana, who has visited Burma four times since 2008, noted the positive steps taken by the government ‘that have the potential to bring about an improvement in the human rights situation of Myanmar (Burma).’ He also welcomed ‘what seems to be an opening of space for different actors and parties to engage in the political process.’

But while recognizing the efforts of the government to implement reforms, he also underscored the ‘serious and ongoing human rights concerns that need to be addressed.’ He also specifically cited the continuing detention of a large number of ‘prisoners of conscience.’

The military junta-dominated government continues to deny the existence of political prisoners in the country, but activists believe there are more than 2,000 people in the country who are in prison today because of their political activities. Burma is notorious for handing out insanely long sentences to captured dissidents. For example, Gen. Hso Ten of the Shan State Peace Council is serving a 106-year sentence for high treason. Hla Hla Win, a video journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma, was detained for using an unregistered motorbike, but her jail sentence has been extended to 20 years.

Burma has more than 43 prisons and around 100 labor camps, but the majority of political prisoners are held in Yangon’s Insein prison. Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi spent time in this top security prison.

In his statement delivered at Yangon International Airport, Quintana shared the testimonies of ‘prisoners of conscience’ in Insein Prison. ‘I heard disturbing testimonies of prolonged sleep and food deprivation during interrogation, beatings, and the burning of bodily parts, including genital organs. I heard accounts of prisoners being confined in cells normally used for prison dogs as means of punishment. I also heard accounts of inadequate access to medical care, where prisoners had to pay for medication at their own cost.’

Quintana also mentioned the continuing allegations of ‘torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, the use of prisoners as porters for the military, and the transfers of prisoners to prisons in remote areas where they are unable to receive family visits or packages of essential medicine and supplemental food.’

Insein Prison has a total prison population of 10,000, but it has only three doctors. The prison overcrowding is blamed for the spread of illnesses in the detention facility.

Quintana’s report validates the claim of human rights groups that Burma prisoners suffer regular physical and psychological abuse from officials. It also affirms the notorious image of Insein prison as the ‘darkest hole in Burma,’ where 300 political prisoners are currently detained.

After witnessing the conditions of the ‘prisoners of conscience’, Quintana immediately called for their release on humanitarian grounds. He also reminded the government that their release would be a ‘central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would bring more benefit to Myanmar’s efforts towards democracy.’

If the Junta generals are serious in their commitment to promote democratic reforms, and if they want the approval of the international human rights community, they would do well to follow what Quintana has outlined in his latest report on the state of human rights in Burma. At the minimum, releasing the ‘prisoners of conscience’ will boost the democratic reform movement in the country.

Written for The Diplomat

Singapore’s Happy Maids?

A survey released this month by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower suggested that most foreign domestic workers are happy and satisfied to work in the prosperous city state. The survey was undertaken by a private firm hired by the Ministry to conduct face-to-face interviews with 900 randomly selected foreign maids. The study also involved 450 employers.

Singapore has more than 200,000 foreign maids who came mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. According to the survey, 9 in 10 foreign maids said they were satisfied with working in Singapore, while 7 in 10 have expressed an interest in continuing to work in the city after their contracts expire. Almost 9 in 10 would like to continue working for their current employer. Meanwhile, 3 in 4 employers said they were satisfied with their current maids, and 6 in 10 intend to continue employing their current maids after their existing contracts expire.

The survey also revealed that the maids have sufficient food (99 percent) and adequate rest (97 percent) while slightly more than half of them (53 percent) said they were given at least one rest day per month. While it’s comforting to learn that the basic needs of most foreign maids are being addressed, it’s a little alarming that 47 percent of them weren’t being given a day off by their employers. Why has the Ministry failed to point to this finding as a serious issue of concern?

As expected, 25 percent of the foreign maids cited homesickness as their main problem, while 16 percent of them said that they had initial difficulties communicating with Singaporeans, and 11 percent said they were unable to cope with their work. Curiously, 22 percent claimed they experienced no problems at all when they came to work in Singapore. It’s hard to believe that such a large number of maids didn’t encounter a single problem in their work. Meanwhile, the survey didn’t mention potential physical or other types of abuse.

Maybe one reason for the rosy assessment was a communication problem during the interviews, which prevented the maids from expressing their real feelings and thoughts. Were they interviewed in front of their employers? Were they informed that their answers would be kept confidential? Were they allowed to speak in their native language?

Even Singaporean writer Au Waipang questioned some of the ‘unreliable’ and ‘dishonest’ conclusions in the surveys. He found it incredible that more than half of the interviewed maids gave a perfect rating when asked about their work situation and welfare. He noted, for instance, that Singapore maids earn less compared with maids working in other rich countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Singapore government should obviously be commended for trying to probe the conditions of foreign maids working in the country – it’s a move that should be replicated by other rich nations, which are too focused in studying the situation of foreign employees and managers while ignoring the plight of foreign maids.

The survey confirms the perception that the welfare of most Singapore maids is protected by both the employers and the state. But the survey methodology also has flaws, which appear to have generated some unbelievable and maybe inaccurate results. The survey should inspire the government to continue formulating policies and programmes to help promote the work conditions of maids in Singapore since the ‘happy’ maids in the real world could simply be hiding their real dissatisfaction and loneliness.

Written for The Diplomat

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