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The Lingering Disaster in Burma

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Reign of Terror in Burma Requires Genuine U.N. Action - Not Just Official Visits

August 25th 2008

Burma - Burmese Generals
Burma's Generals

On July 27, Nhkum Hkawn Din, a 15 year-old school girl in Kachin State, northern Burma, was brutally gang-raped and then murdered by Burma Army soldiers. Her skull was crushed beyond recognition, her eyes gouged out, her throat cut, she was stabbed in her right rib cage and stomach, and all her facial features were obliterated. Her body was found after a three-day search, naked and mutilated, 200 meters from an army checkpoint near Nam Sai village, Bamaw District. She was on her way to bring rice to her brother.

Against this backdrop, UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has just completed another visit to Burma last week for more talks with the country’s brutal, illegitimate military regime. But instead of taking the regime to task for human rights violations, he spent two days talking with the regime and its cronies, and just twenty minutes with the leaders of Burma’s democracy movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Even though his previous visits have yielded no change in the junta’s behavior, and Burma’s human rights record continues to deteriorate, Gambari rejected calls from activists to drop the diplomatic niceties and photo-calls and set out unambiguously the requirements for change.

Instead he spent time talking with groups such as the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), the major funder of the regime’s brutal proxy militia group “Swan-Arr-Shin”. This group led the regime’s efforts in attacking and killing peaceful monks and democracy activists during and after last September's Saffron Revolution. According to the US Campaign for Burma, Gambari also met with the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a group comparable to Hitler's “Brown Shirts,” that carried out an assassination attempt on Nobel Peace Prize recipient Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2003. During that attack dozens of her party members were killed. Also on his schedule was a meeting with the National Unity Party, the military-backed political party that lost severely to the NLD in 1990 elections -- gaining only 10 out of 485 seats in parliament.

Since 1990, there have been 37 visits by UN envoys to Burma – yet the crisis in the country has worsened in that time. More than 30 resolutions have been passed by the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly, and the Security Council has held past two presidential statements, with little effect. Vague, timeless requests to the junta to engage in dialogue with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi have led nowhere. She has spent more than 12 years under house arrest, and her detention has been extended again. Earlier this year the regime said she deserved to be “flogged”. The Generals are not people who are persuaded at cocktail parties.

Gambari’s efforts have clearly failed. Now, activists say, it is time for the UN to set out some specific benchmarks for progress for the junta, accompanied by deadlines. The first benchmark should be the release of political prisoners, who currently number over 2,000. Many are in extremely poor health due to bad prison conditions, mistreatment, torture and the denial of medical care. In the past 20 years, 137 have died in custody. This year alone, there have been 267 arbitrary arrests. The UN should insist that the Generals release political prisoners before Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Burma in December.

Further benchmarks should follow – such as an end to the military offensive against civilians in eastern Burma which has destroyed 3,200 villages and displaced more than a million people since 1996, and an end to the culture of impunity and the systematic and widespread use of rape as a weapon of war against ethnic nationalities in Burma. Over a thousand cases of rape have been documented in Burma’s ethnic areas, and many more go unreported. The pattern is nationwide – Kachin, Chin, Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon women’s organisations have all documented cases. Last year four schoolgirls in Kachin state were gang-raped by Burma Army soldiers – and then arrested and charged with prostitution when they reported it. The UN Security Council has recognized rape and sexual violence as a crime against humanity in Resolution 1820 passed on 19 June this year – something Mr. Gambari should have reminded the Generals this week.
  
Setting benchmarks, with realistic deadlines, would enable Mr Gambari – if he is kept in his post—to evaluate, incrementally, the progress – or lack thereof – that he is making. If the junta complies, so much the better. But if it continues with its policies of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, bold action should be taken.

A universal arms embargo should be imposed through the Security Council – and maximum pressure placed on China and Russia not to use their veto. Major financial centres such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as the European Union, should impose carefully targeted financial sanctions against the Generals’ personal assets and investments. And the international community should stop the diplomatic charade and call the Generals by name for what they are: criminals. The prosecution of Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir and the capture of Radovan Karadzic have set a precedent. Burma’s Generals are guilty of every imaginable crime against humanity, and should be brought to account in the International Criminal Court or through another jurisdiction.

The regime’s credentials to represent Burma in the UN should also be challenged. The junta has no legitimacy, having overwhelmingly lost elections in 1990, manifestly rigged a referendum on a new constitution earlier this year, and proven itself criminally negligent in its handling of Cyclone Nargis. The junta ignored 41 warnings about the approaching cyclone, initially rejected international offers of aid and then restricted, obstructed and diverted relief. According to the UN, over a million cyclone victims have still not received help. At least 2.5 million are still homeless and over 140,000 dead. And now the UN says the regime has been stealing millions of dollars of aid money through its below-market fixed exchange rates. Burma is the world’s second major opium producer and a leading producer of amphetamines – and the regime is knee-deep in drugs. The junta is unfit to govern, and there is a legitimate alternative in the form of those elected in 1990 now living as a government in exile.

These may seem drastic measures, but the situation is dire. The regime has destroyed twice as many ethnic villages as in Darfur, civilians are shot at point-blank range, and forced labour, torture and the use of human minesweepers is widespread. Burma has the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. It is widely believed that one reason the regime denied aid to some cyclone victims was because they were Karen. The regime has been conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Karen for decades, and it may have used a natural disaster to assist in its efforts.

Last week, two Members of Parliament elected in 1990 were arrested for signing a letter to Ban Ki-moon. Several other signatories went into hiding. The letter refers to the Secretary-General’s strong stand on Zimbabwe: “We applaud the courage of the Secretary-General and his expression of moral authority … We expect [the] Secretary-General [to] also stand for the rights of the people of Burma, who were unable to express their real aspirations in the referendum.” It continues: “At the very least, we don’t want the United Nations siding with the dictators, and forcing the people of Burma into an untenable position.”

The UN should not just call for the release of those arrested last week – Ban Ki-moon and Gambari should read their letter carefully. They should warn the Generals that if they do not change, calls for such action will grow louder, and pressure on Burma’s protectors – China, India, Thailand and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) – will only grow stronger. The status quo is unsustainable, and Gambari’s record is a failure. Both he and the junta need to change their act.

Benedict Rogers is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People (Monarch, 2004), and has visited Burma and its borderlands more than 20 times. He also serves as Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission.


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