Fri 21 Oct 2005
Filed under: International,News
Bangkok: Branding Myanmar’s military regime a “threat to the peace,” a global coalition of human rights advocates is urging the United Nations to intervene in the Southeast Asian nation to restore democracy, deliver humanitarian aid and win the release of political prisoners.
Led by retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, activists are calling on the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution that would pave the way for nonmilitary intervention in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
In a 70-page report that accuses the regime of using forced labor, rape, “ethnic cleansing” and child soldiers to control its population, Tutu and Havel make the case that abuses by Myanmar are more egregious than in countries where the United Nations intervened during the 1990s, including Sierra Leone, Haiti and Cambodia.
“If a government violates the fundamental rights of its own people, that can’t be left as a domestic issue,” said Tutu in a telephone interview from his home in Cape Town, South Africa. “I believe that we have an almost open-and-shut case for the intervention of the United Nations.”
Tutu, 74, the 1984 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against apartheid, and Havel, 69, the Czech playwright who helped end the era of Soviet domination, called on the Security Council to pass a resolution requiring Myanmar to work with the U.N. to achieve national reconciliation and restore a democratically elected government.
The proposed resolution also calls for the immediate release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and 1,100 other political prisoners and urges Myanmar to give unhindered access to international aid workers so they can deliver assistance in the impoverished country.
So far, the proposal has not won enough support from the 15-member Security Council to get on its agenda. Among those unwilling to discuss the measure is China, one of Myanmar’s biggest investors and supporters. The United States, a vocal critic of the regime, supports the plan.
Myanmar has been ruled by the military for virtually all of the last 43 years. In 1988, the regime killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, a precursor to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing the following year.
In 1990, the regime held elections and the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won more than 80% of the vote. However, the military refused to hand over power.
On Monday, party leader Suu Kyi will mark her 10th year in detention out of the last 16 years. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she is being held in virtual isolation at her house in the capital, Yangon, also known as Rangoon. Now 60, she is the only Peace Prize winner in custody anywhere in the world.
The Tutu-Havel report, titled “Threat to the Peace” and prepared by the global law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, alleges numerous human rights violations, including the rape of ethnic minority women and the spread of HIV by soldiers; widespread forced labor; destruction of more than 2,700 villages; massive forced relocations; and the torture and killing of political prisoners.
As many as 70,000 children have been forced to become soldiers, more than in any other country, the report says, and more than 700,000 refugees have fled across the border into Thailand and other countries.
Myanmar is a leading producer of opium and amphetamine, and its heroin trade has made it a primary contributor to the spread of AIDS in Southeast Asia, the report charges. Strains of human immunodeficiency virus that originated in Myanmar have spread to neighboring countries, it says.
More than 75% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the report.
“The government is responsible for a decline in the economic situation so alarming that Burma is now one of the poorest countries in the world, providing its people little or no access to healthcare or education,” it says.
The report concludes that the country “threatens the peace and stability of the region” and that the situation meets all the Security Council criteria used in the past for intervention.
The Myanmar regime, which often ignores international criticism, has denounced the report. The government declared that it was “based on false information provided by some rebel remnants and the expatriate dissidents who are surviving on politically motivated aid of some Western nations.”
“These are vast exaggerations or mere outright distortions,” the regime said in a statement. “The truth is that the government does not condone human rights violations and is in fact the guarantor of human rights in the country.”
Myanmar’s reaction suggests that the regime is concerned about the efforts by human rights activists to get the Security Council involved.
So far, Myanmar’s allies on the Security Council have kept the issue from being heard.
“I can’t get Myanmar on the agenda at the Security Council,” British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said in an interview. “I’ve tried for the last six months. Some members say it is a matter of internal security and domestic affairs, and unless the government of Burma is prepared to go along with it, then you wouldn’t make progress.”
For years, there have been two competing but ineffective, approaches to Myanmar. The U.S. has imposed economic sanctions, contributing to the country’s financial decline but failing to topple the regime. Neighbors such as China, India and Thailand have advocated engagement with the regime while developing economic ties, but this strategy has produced no significant concessions.
The U.N. has had no success in promoting political change or winning the release of Suu Kyi through negotiations. The world body’s special envoy to Myanmar, Razali Ismail, has not even been allowed to enter the country since March 2004.
In the face of global criticism, Myanmar has pursued a strategy of promising change while delivering little. It has claimed for years that it is working toward democracy, but no elections have been held since 1990, and military officers hold virtually every top position in government. The drafting of a new constitution has been in progress for more than 12 years.
Tutu said the situation in Myanmar was similar to that of South Africa under apartheid two decades ago: a small ruling minority, facing economic sanctions, imposing its will on the majority while the nation’s most popular leader (Nelson Mandela in South Africa) languishes in detention.
But of the two ex-British colonies, Tutu said, the situation in Myanmar is “a great deal worse.”
“They are using rape as a weapon of war and deliberately infecting people with HIV, which fortunately we didn’t have at the time” in South Africa, he said. “They are using child soldiers and participating in the drug trade.”
On his wall, Tutu said, he has two photos of Suu Kyi, whom he has never met but admires greatly.
“These men who are armed to the teeth are dead scared of her because she has this incredible thing: She has integrity,” he said. “The people, who are the ultimate arbiter, look upon her as their leader. I look forward to attending her inauguration as president of Burma one day.”
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.