… again Burma

Excerpt from a today’s publication in ‘The Nation, Thailand‘:Today, the world finds itself at odds with another brutal military junta in the Southeast Asian country of Burma, which continues to incarcerate Aung San Suu Kyi, the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

Suu Kyi’s “crime” is being loved by the people of Burma. Her political party won 82 per cent of the seats in parliament in Burma’s last democratic election, only to have the results annulled by the ruling military junta. She has remained locked up for 10 of the past 17 years. Many people of Burma fare much worse, suffering the most severe forms of torture.

The situation for ethnic minorities in the country is even worse. The military regime rules by brute force, oppressing and relocating hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities who stand in opposition to its rule. Two thousand eight hundred villages have been burned down or otherwise destroyed in eastern Burma alone, some repeatedly, to force ethnic minorities to move to military-controlled areas. As a result, there are over one million Burmese refugees, and over half a million internally displaced people (IDPs).

The situation for both groups is dire. For example, refugees like Naanh Hla (not her real name), a Shan woman, who was 16 years old and seven months pregnant when 10 Burmese soldiers kidnapped and killed her husband and gang-raped her to the point that she gave birth prematurely alone in the jungle, or Naw Paw Paw, who recounted to Burma Issues – a group working with the human-rights organisation WITNESS – how she lost four of her six children, two on the same day, over the course of many years fleeing through the jungle.

In the past four months, the worst attacks in a decade have displaced almost 20,000 people. Yet the junta continues to cut off international access to areas of ongoing conflict, which has precluded aid to IDPs, a violation of international humanitarian law. Even in Sudan, humanitarian agencies are permitted access; not so in eastern Burma.

If caught by the military, IDPs are often either killed on the spot or forced to become porters or labourers with little or no pay. Female porters are often systematically raped at night by officers and soldiers. Forced labourers are often required to build roads for the military, making it near impossible for them to grow their own crops.

The junta military also targets children. According to Human Rights Watch, there are up to 70,000 children conscripted into the army, more than any other country in the world. Some conscripted “soldiers” are as young as eleven.

The United Nations has tried in good faith to bring change to Burma but these efforts have failed. The military junta has ignored 28 consecutive non-binding UN Resolutions, four special envoys from the UN Commission on Human Rights, and two special envoys from Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has called for the release of Suu Kyi and others, to no avail. Bilateral initiatives from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore have also been rebuffed by the military junta, and several missions by the European Union have failed to elicit reform. These failures are not the fault of the United Nations. They have failed due to the intransigence of the military junta, which continues to make empty promises about transitioning to democratic government. The junta’s words have lost all credibility.

This situation won’t fix itself. The UN Security Council should address the situation in Burma and pass a legally binding resolution calling for peaceful change. Unlike other UN efforts, the Security Council has the power to compel its members to take action. A positive proposal was articulately spelled out in a recent report by South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Czech president Vaclav Havel in which they made it abundantly clear that the Council has the responsibility to act on Burma. The report articulated how the effects of brutal military rule in Burma are spilling over the country’s borders and destabilising the region, and rightfully pointed out there is ample precedent for action – the Security Council has acted in less severe situations in the past. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others are calling for the Security Council to act.

Members of the Security Council, including Argentina and the United Kingdom, should step forward and publicly lead the effort for a peaceful, binding Security Council resolution on Burma. If they refuse to act, many more people will die.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel is the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize recipient from Argentina and founder of the Service, Peace and Justice Foundation.

Peter Gabriel, acclaimed musician and activist, is the co-founder of the international organisation WITNESS, currently partnered with the human rights group Burma Issues.

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