Rogers is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and was Conservative Parliamentary
Candidate for the City of Durham in 2005. He works for the human rights
charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide , and is the author of A Land Without
Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People.
I have just
returned from my 13th visit to the Thai-Burma border –
which, when added to my visits to the India-Burma border, the China-Burma
border and Rangoon and Mandalay mean I have so far made a total of 17
visits to the Burma region since 2000. On each visit, I have talked
with people who have seen their villages burned, loved ones killed,
women raped and tortured, and have been used for forced labour. This
time was no different.
In a camp of
3,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) on the banks of the Salween
River, I met a woman whose 15 year-old son had been killed by the Burma
Army. He had been tied to a tree, his head cut off. I met another woman
whose husband had been mutilated and killed. Burma Army soldiers had
gouged out his eyes, tore off his lips and cut off his ears. And I met
a third woman whose husband had been hung upside down from a tree, tortured,
his eyes gouged out, and then drowned. This is the terrible truth about
And so it begs
the question: what should the international community do? First of all,
pay attention. With some welcome exceptions, the world’s media and
politicians have ignored the terrible situation in Burma for far too
long, and yet it ranks as one of the world’s worst human rights catastrophes.
I will never forget, on a previous trip through the jungle, meeting
a 15 year-old boy whose parents had been killed and his village burned,
and he had been taken as a forced porter for the Burma Army. He looked
me in the eye and said:
“Please tell the world to put pressure on
the regime to stop killing its people. Please tell the world not to
A brutal military
regime rules the country by force, having lost elections in 1990 to
the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Laureate Aung
San Suu Kyi. Yet those elected in 1990 are either in exile or in prison,
and Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 12 years under house arrest.
In 2003, the regime attempted to assassinate her.
More than 1,100
political prisoners remain in jail, subjected to the most barbaric forms
of torture. Over a million people are internally displaced in eastern
Burma, victims of the regime’s policy of ethnic cleansing bordering
on a slow attempted genocide against the Karen, Karenni, Shan and other
ethnic groups. More than 3,000 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed
When the military attacks, they loot and destroy everything
– rice barns, crops, livestock, cooking instruments and homes, and
lay landmines at the entrance to villages to stop those who have escaped
from returning. Civilians are used as human minesweepers, forced to
walk across fields of landmines to clear them for the military – losing
their limbs and often their lives in the process. On top of all this,
Burma has the world’s highest number of forcibly conscripted child
soldiers – some as young as 9, taken from bus stops and street corners
and forced to join the military.
that these violations are simply part of a counter-insurgency policy
to crush ethnic armed resistance groups. But it is much more than that.
To call it counter-insurgency is to add unwarranted legitimacy to the
regime’s policies, and to pin the blame unfairly on the ethnic groups.
The armed resistance groups exist to defend their people and their land
against an aggressive, brutal dictatorship. They are fighting a struggle
for survival. Civilians are targeted – raped, tortured and beheaded.
And even in areas where ceasefires exist, such as Kachin and Mon States,
forced labour, land confiscation and rape continue.
So the international
community should start by calling the crimes by their proper name: crimes
against humanity. Although ‘genocide’ is a debatable term, and what
is happening is not on the same dramatic scale as Rwanda or the Holocaust,
if you read the Genocide Convention and subsequent interpretations,
several of the definitions fit Burma. It is perhaps a slow attempted
genocide. Certainly it is crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing
– and there is a case to investigate regarding genocide.
There is a
debate emerging over the question of sanctions. Some people question
whether sanctions against Burma work. Others argue sanctions hurt the
people, not the regime. Some believe we can open up Burma through economic
investment. Yet all these arguments are founded on several myths.
Myth 1 is that
sanctions have failed. But the truth is, sanctions have not really been
tried. Only the United States has meaningful trade and investment sanctions.
The European Union (EU) bans investment in certain State-owned enterprises
in Burma, who are named in a list produced by Brussels. On that list
are a tailor shop and a pineapple juice factory – but not a single
company in the oil, gas, timber or gem sectors, the major sources of
revenue for the regime. The regime’s two major conglomerates – the
Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEH) and the Myanmar Economic
Corporation (MEC) – are exempt from sanctions. Yet the UMEH, whose
shareholders are limited to the military establishment, has as its stated
objective “to support military personnel and their families” and
“to try and become the main logistics and support organisation for
the military”. By 1999, the UMEH had established nearly 50 joint ventures
with foreign firms.
If the EU banned
investment in the UMEH and the MEC, and froze the regime’s assets,
it would hit the Generals where they would feel it most – in their
pockets. As it is, French oil company Total remains one of the single
largest foreign investors in Burma – and one of the single largest
sources of revenue for the regime. And it is a regime which spends almost
half its budget on the military, and less than $1 per person per year
on health and education combined. It has expanded the military to up
to 400,000 – yet it has no external enemies. The military is used
solely for internal repression.
Myth 2 is that
sanctions hurt the people. No one is talking about Iraqi-style blanket-sanctions.
Those who campaign on this issue want targeted sanctions, aimed at the
regime and its assets. No foreign investment in Burma really benefits
the people. Three-quarters of the population live in the subsistence
agriculture sector, outside the realms of foreign investment. They do
not see the benefits of investment, and they are not hurt by sanctions.
A minority of people working in the affected sectors may lose their
jobs as a result of sanctions, but we face a stark choice: to allow
the regime the finance it needs for its survival, thereby condemning
Burma to continued oppression and violence, or to cut the regime’s
financial lifelines, forcing it to come to the table.
Myth 3 is to
compare Burma with countries like Cuba. But while Cuba has its grave
human rights problems, Burma is far worse. Burma ranks alongside North
Korea and Sudan as one of the world’s worst. Indeed, it could even
be in a category all on its own. What other regime has imprisoned and
attempted to kill a Nobel Laureate, ignored the results of an election,
forcibly recruited more than 70,000 child soldiers, and carried out
systematic rape, torture, forced labour, religious persecution and ethnic
Myth 4 is that
sanctions are an imposition by well-intentioned but naïve Westerners.
This could not be more wrong. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have repeatedly
called for sanctions. All the major representatives of the ethnic groups
call for sanctions. The overwhelming majority of Burmese people I have
met call for sanctions. Surely we should respect the will of the Burmese
people and their democratically elected leaders?
Myth 5 is that
if you are pro-sanctions, you are pro-isolation and against engagement.
This is one of the most polarising, destructive and inaccurate myths
of all. I am not against talking to the regime. Indeed, I, along with
the rest of the Burma pro-democracy movement, call for tripartite dialogue
between the regime, the NLD and the ethnic groups. The ethnic groups
and the NLD have consistently shown they are willing to talk. Only the
regime has refused.
campaign to bring the issue of Burma to the agenda of the UN Security
Council proves this point. In the resolution, tabled by the US and the
UK and vetoed by China and Russia, no punitive action was mentioned.
The resolution was an entirely reasonable call for the regime to release
political prisoners, open up the country to international humanitarian
aid, and enter into dialogue.
Nobody is talking
about isolation. The question is not whether to engage, but how and
on whose terms? The UK tried has tried economic investment before. In
the 1980s and 1990s, we regularly held trade fairs in Rangoon – while
the regime was bombing Karen villages. The regime did not change as
a result of us pumping money into its coffers.
What is needed
is financial support for the pro-democracy movement, not the regime.
If the UK provided assistance to Burmese human rights groups within
the country and in exile to develop their capacity, it would make a
difference. Some of these groups risk their lives gathering much-needed
information inside Burma, and disseminating it to the world. Others
are engaged in human rights education and civil society development.
There are broadcasters and publications devoted to the spread of information
within Burma. We should be supporting them.
Myth 6 is that sanctions drive the regime into the hands of China,
India and other countries in the region. But the regime has always been
more friendly with these countries anyway. Burma is a member of the
Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Western foreign investment
is never going to counter the regime’s attitudes – and it will simply
enable them to buy more arms. Instead, the US and the EU must embark
on a concerted effort to put pressure on China, India and the ASEAN
member states to use the influence they have with the regime to bring
about change. If it was properly co-ordinated, the international community
could develop an effective “good cop, bad cop” strategy – with
the US and the EU providing the stick, and China, India and ASEAN the
carrot. If China, India and ASEAN could be persuaded that the regime
itself is the cause of instability in the region, they may be persuaded
to have some tough words with their friends the Generals. If China,
India and ASEAN can be persuaded that it is in their interests to use
their influence for change, they may just do so. It will be hard work,
but it is worth trying.
At the end
of the day, sanctions are only one tool in the toolbox. No one believes
sanctions alone will change the situation. They must be used alongside
other measures. But people should not underestimate the effect of US
and EU sanctions. Withdrawing Western investment cuts off some of the
regime’s revenues – meaning it can buy fewer arms than it would
otherwise have done. If we had tougher measures from the EU, combined
with pressure on China, India and ASEAN to do more, it would have even
more effect. Greater engagement by the UN Security Council and the UN
Secretary-General would also help. And there is one thing we can be
sure of: lifting sanctions, before there is any meaningful progress
towards democracy, would send entirely the wrong message to the regime.
And in any case, is a regime which gouges out the eyes and cuts off
the ears of its people really one we would want to invest in?
who wish to know more, I would recommend the following papers published
by Burma Campaign UK:
- Pro-Aid, Pro-Sanctions,
- The European
Union and Burma: The Case for Targeted Sanctions
- Failing the
People of Burma? A call for a review of DFID policy on Burma