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Red Cross Claims Positive Impact on Burma Human Rights Conditions - 2003-04-07

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the presence of its delegates in Burma has improved human rights conditions in the Asian country, especially for those held in Burma's jails.

Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross have said their organization has been able to make a difference in the lives of Burmese prisoners.

The committee's chief delegate in Burma, Michel Ducraux, says there has been a marked improvement in the physical, material and psychological conditions of those jailed since Red Cross visits to prisons began in 1999. Last year, according to the Red Cross, its workers visited almost 3,000 prisoners in 44 places of detention.

Michel Ducraux said at the end of last year, the military authorities granted the Red Cross permission to operate in sensitive ethnic and conflict-ridden areas, including Shan State. That is where human rights organizations accuse the Burmese military of systematically raping Shan women.

Mr. Ducraux said he will not comment on conditions in Shan State because the work of the Red Cross is confidential. Red Cross delegates convey their concerns privately to the authorities and make recommendations. But the Red Cross official did express his belief that the group's presence already has had an influence on the situation in Shan State.

"It is the villagers themselves who make these kinds of statements. They tell us that they feel a little bit more secure now that the ICRC is present. But also that maybe some segment of the army at least show more respect to them," Mr. Ducraux said.

But there are those who say that the army continues to intimidate people in Shan State. Last week in Geneva, a representative of the Shan Women's Action Network said the military threatened to torture villagers if they spoke to representatives of the Red Cross and Amnesty International when they visited the state in December and January.

Mr. Ducraux acknowledges there is a risk that the military that rules Burma may be trying to use his organization as a cover to smooth over its human rights record.

But he said the Red Cross will not allow itself to be used. And if it finds that the government does not follow through on his organization's recommendations, then Red Cross visits to prisons and sensitive areas will stop. "Until now, we were able to witness important changes and to witness that the authorities were widely taking our recommendations into consideration, into account. Really make significant steps. Not only cosmetic," he said.

Mr. Ducraux said the Red Cross has been able to develop contacts with the Burmese armed forces and military intelligence. These contacts, he says, will help promote better treatment of ethnic minorities.