Watching Over Burma

 |  August 30, 2012

Not all of us get to enjoy passion in our careers. David Mathieson, 42, is one of the lucky ones; a researcher on Burma issues for Human Rights Watch (HMW), Mathieson works for one of the world’s leading independent organisations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. Unlike many of us, Mathieson knows that this will be his life’s work; he is committed to the cause for the long haul because he believes that human rights violations also need to be placed under the spotlight when compared to other high-profile Burma-related issues, such as politics and ongoing conflicts.

Although Mathieson was born in Scotland, his father’s military career led them to move to Australia when he was two. “We were dropped at a relocation camp outside Melbourne, with other immigrants and refugees…For a time my family moved to Malaysia to a large military base, where I went to an air force school for six years.”

Mathieson, while softly spoken and well versed in diplomatic talk, is a straight-talking, no-nonsense Aussie. “In my line of work speaking your mind is an advantage. You can’t buckle under government pressure or have officials bullying you. There is no surrendering to class in Australia.”

After graduating with a degree in political science, Mathieson became interested in Burmese politics, something which intrigued him because it was barely covered in his Southeast Asian political studies. He continued his studies and gained a masters degree in the political analysis of the SLORC government and is now about to complete his PhD on conflict and narcotics in the Shan State later t his year.

Before moving to the region full time, Mathieson taught political science in Australian universities. He has written books and articles and been published in prestigious journals such as The Wall Street Journal and The Irrawaddy Magazine. He is often called upon by the media such as the BBC for his expertise on a country which, until very recently, has been shrouded by repression, tension and censorship.

In 2006 Mathieson was asked to join Human Rights Watch (HRW) as a main researcher and advocate for human rights in Burma. In spite of so many human rights violations happening daily in Burma, Mathieson’s organisation avoids taking political sides and must remain focused on human rights violations.

“Our mandate is to promote international humanitarian law. We don’t take a position on why people are fighting, and we hold everyone to one standard. A child solider in the Burmese army is just as serious an issue as a child solider in an ethnic army.” It is surprising that he does not find it hard to remain impartial. “It is easy to be neutral because that is the mandate and the approach,” he explains. “You can’t be an affective humanitarian if you take sides, Burma is a lot more complicated than what most people think and people forget that every side perpetrates abuse; some people in the movement turn a blind eye to ethnic violations, and I find that really unacceptable.”

In his position, he must approach and challenge governments and the powers that be to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. “We don’t believe in generating information and then just screaming at governments from afar. We want to engage with them. It can be challenging.”

Human rights issues in Burma range from practical matters such as shelter, healthcare and education to serious abuses like execution, torture, war crimes and ‘human shielding’; the term used to describe the Burmese government’s use of convicts for tasks such as walking over landmine-infested ground. “It’s basically murder,” said Mathieson grimly.

I asked him if he ever worried about his safety in Burma, having to enter the country so often over the years. “I got detained at Rangoon airport once; I was on the blacklist. It wasn’t menacing or threatening though,” he says casually. “But I do worry for the people I interview. We are very careful to make sure that there are no repercussions.”

The latest subject he has been tackling is land reform, especially land rights and relocation. Due to the incredible changes happening in Burma right now, development and foreign investments will have huge impacts on land rights. “There is not much of a legal or regulatory framework controlling the economy or land rights. Economic and infrastructural development will affect the environment, and people living on land. The selling of land to foreign investors or for military control will inevitably cause people to be displaced.”

Mathieson is cautiously positive about Burma’s current reforms. “I don’t think that anyone expected to see the level of openness that has happened following the elections,” he explained. “But one thing which gives me pause is that it is a very urban phenomenon; it hasn’t affected people in other areas. Any optimism has to be balanced with things which haven’t changed, such as the role of the Burmese army which is just as abusive and riddled with self interest.”

“We have also been disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi and her failure to speak out about the conflict and abuse in the Arakan and Kachin States. She has been very safe, and she is now playing the role of a politician.”

In spite of his reservations, Mathieson is positive that the situation in Burma is indeed getting better. “A lot of the people we have been campaigning for are now out of prison,” he grins. “These leaders were constantly harassed and under surveillance, and it is incredible that they are now like celebrities doing media interviews!”

“Some people asked how I can stand working in a situation like Burma where it’s like banging your head against a wall. I say, you keep doing it because it’s the right thing to do and you don’t give up because the people in the country aren’t giving up.”

David Mathieson has a beautiful half Karen daughter who speaks fluent Thai, Karen and (Aussie)English. He loves Rangoon and one day considers living in Burma, he surrounds himself with a network of friends and colleagues who are passionate about Burma…and there are many – academics, researchers, advocates, refugees and those in self exile living here in Chiang Mai, almost a sub-culture of people whose careers are dedicated towards Burma’s various causes. Like the Burmese people, their passionate neighbours here in Chiang Mai appear to also refuse to give up.