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Burma - keep up the pressure

Monday, October 15, 2007

The following article was written for the House magazine’s 15th October issue.


We do not know every detail of how the Burmese regime crushed the peaceful protests of monks and ordinary citizens a fortnight ago. How could we? The generals did all they could to stop information from getting out of the country. But first-hand accounts trickle out, including shocking reports of the crematoriums at Yeway and Htain Bin working through the night to destroy the evidence of the atrocities. But what we do know for certain is terrible enough.


It was in the middle of August that we first began to get reports from our embassy in Rangoon of street protests in the major Burmese cities. These were in direct response to the regime’s decision to increase the retail price of fuel by up to 500 per cent a move that caused immense hardship to an already impoverished people.


But, though the demonstrations began with an economic rationale, they soon took on a more overtly political tone. The regime reacted by rounding up pro-democracy activists, which the UK government was swift to condemn. We expressed our solidarity with the demonstrators and warned the regime that it would be judged by how it responded to this peaceful movement.


The demonstrations grew rapidly in size in late September, led by large numbers of Buddhist monks. Our priority was for the international community to send a united signal to the regime that violent repression would not be tolerated. That involved the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and me contacting our counterparts, particularly Burma’s neighbours.


We also pressed hard for multilateral action and initial UN Security Council discussions took place on 20 September. The Prime Minister then wrote to the UN Secretary General and the President of the EU expressing our concerns, which prompted an EU statement warning the Burmese regime of strengthened measures if they resorted to violence. We engaged our diplomatic network to help the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, get into Burma and then ensure he had the opportunity to report back to the Security Council. 


Tragically, as we now know, the regime did not heed the calls of the international community: instead it turned its guns on its own people. It may be that the generals thought that they could get away with it as global interest faded over time as they had in 1988. If so, they badly miscalculated the determination of people and governments around the world. The ASEAN nations expressed their revulsion at the Burmese regimes actions with China joining the chorus of condemnation at the UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council. 


There are two immediate steps the regime must take. The first is to end the violence and to release all political detainees, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There are disturbing reports that some of the recent detainees have been beaten and abused, refused medical attention or kept in cells measuring just one metre square.


The second step is to engage in a genuine process of national reconciliation and unification. That process will need to be very different from the widely discredited "roadmap” instituted by the regime in 2003 and which they are now trying to re-start. A genuine process must involve the leaders of all Burma’s political opposition and ethnic groups. It must have international legitimacy with the UN and Burma’s neighbours closely engaged. Everyone who has influence on the Burmese regime particularly those in the region now have to use it to convince the junta of this new reality. 


Meanwhile, Europe’s foreign ministers met on Monday to decide how to toughen up our own sanctions against the Burmese regime. We know that in isolation this will not bring about political change in Burma. But the fact that the regime itself has recently called for the ending of international sanctions is a sign, perhaps, of its nervousness. It may also reflect the care we have taken to ensure that sanctions target the leadership of the regime. We will, of course, continue to provide vital humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people, so that they do not suffer twice-over from the actions of the regime.


The deep and dreadful suffering of the Burmese people has long united Parliamentarians from across the political divide. On 6th October, the global day of action on Burma, we saw how it also united many thousands of ordinary British citizens who took to the streets across the United Kingdom. The job of all us who care about the future of Burma in government or not is to keep up the pressure; not to forget, not to lose momentum, not to abandon the brave people of Burma.  

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