Wed 6 Oct 2004
Filed under: News,Opinion
On Thursday evening in Hanoi, European leaders will sit down alongside representatives of the murderous illegal junta that rules Burma, their principles in tatters.
Earlier this year, the European Union said that Burma could only attend the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) if it met three conditions: the release of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleague U Tin U, the re-opening of National League for Democracy (NLD) offices, and the
participation of ethnic minorities and pro-democracy groups in Burma’s National Convention. The junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has failed on all three counts, but the EU, instead of enforcing its conditions, caved in to Asean’s demand that Burma be allowed to participate in the ASEM talks, despite fierce opposition from the European Parliament. The EU’s action has been described by one Burmese democrat as “weak and vague.” It could more frankly be called spineless capitulation.
Since Ne Win’s coup in 1962, Burma has been ruled by successive military regimes. While there have been personnel changes and occasional facelifts, the brutality continues. The Junta has held a National Convention, but without the participation of the main pro-democracy and ethnic-minority
groups it was a sham. It has begun ceasefire talks with the Karen National Union (KNU), but has intensified military offensives against other ethnic groups, and is continuing its catalogue of atrocities in all ethnic areas — widespread and systematic use of rape, forced relocation, forced labor,
child soldiers, human minesweepers, religious persecution and the destruction of villages and crops.
Over 1,400 prisoners of conscience are behind bars, an estimated one million people are internally displaced, and student leader Min Ko Naing, whose prison term has long since expired, continues in solitary confinement. Torture is a fact of life in Burma’s prisons and ethnic areas. The regime itself is illegal, since it overwhelmingly lost the 1990
elections to the NLD — yet it ignores the results of those elections, imprisons the victors and has intensified its grip on power.
Nevertheless, the decision to include Burma at ASEM has been taken and the focus now must be on what message to deliver to the junta. A starting point would be to call specifically for the release of Ms. Suu Kyi, the world’s only Nobel laureate under house arrest, and for the beginning of
meaningful dialogue with the NLD. In 2006, Burma is scheduled to hold the presidency of Asean. But the idea that the generals in Rangoon could host world leaders at summits on economic cooperation whilst continuing to
rape, loot, torture and kill Burma’s people churns the stomach. Both the EU and Asean should issue a statement at ASEM making it clear that Burma will not be allowed to assume the 2006 presidency unless things change.
There is a serious danger that the SPDC will paint a veneer of democracy in the next two years whilst in reality cementing its hold on power. Of the thousand delegates at the National Convention, 900 are handpicked by the regime. If the junta puts a draft constitution to a vote in the National Convention, it will win without contest. The international community, including Asean, must make it clear that such an outcome will be unacceptable.
Unless clear measures are taken, the only lesson the SPDC will learn is that the EU’s conditions are meaningless. That has serious implications for the safety of Ms. Suu Kyi. Last year the junta orchestrated an attack on her in central Burma, and, according to eyewitnesses, massacred some 70
people in the process. The international outcry was strong but short-lived. If the junta is allowed to think that this atrocity can be forgotten, it may have less hesitation about imprisoning, or even doing away with, Ms. Suu Kyi. It is vital that she remain on the international agenda, for her own protection and as a symbol of the people’s suffering.
The EU and Asean might hesitate to condemn the SPDC’s acts of oppression and brutality for fear that doing so could harm their economic interests. But they should wake up to the fact that Burma under its current regime does not enhance economic development. The junta spends 50% of its budget on the military and less than 2% on health and education. Burma’s refugee crisis, HIV/AIDS problem and drug trade are a direct result of the SPDC’s policies. It has turned Burma, rich in natural resources, into one of the
world’s least developed nations. It reeks of corruption. Dictators do not make good business partners. A democratic Burma is likely, in the long run, to be a more stable, and therefore more economically viable, country.
The situation in Burma looks as bleak as ever. But the people’s resolve is far from dead. Earlier this year, the NLD, at great risk, organized a petition calling for Ms. Suu Kyi’s release. Every now and then minor protests are organized. The ethnic groups’ determination to fight for freedom has not diminished. The people of Burma still have guts. Now the international community must show some.
Mr. Rogers is a journalist and a human rights activist working for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, in London. He is the author of “A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People” (Kregel Publications, 2004).