I am gravely concerned about the recent events in Burma, the ongoing
abuses of human rights and the failure of the international community,
including the British Labour Government, to take appropriate steps to
protect the Burmese people.
The Government and the international community have for too long failed
to take a effective stand against the Burmese regime that seeks to
oppress and control its people through fear and force. We have all
seen the pictures and the publicity and have heard the public promises
from our Prime Minister – promised to commit resources and to impose
sanctions. Yet what has the Government done in its time in office to
improve the plight of the Burmese people? What has Mr Brown, or his
predecessor, done to ensure that international demands are met,
sanctions are enforced and tough action is taken?
The democratically-elected leader of Burma has been under house arrest
for the last 12 years. In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League
for democracy won an overwhelming democratic victory in the first
multi-party election for 30 years. However democracy was short lived
and Aung San Suu Kyi was never able to take up her post and lead the
Burmese people according to their democratically-expressed wishes.
Instead now this country is governed by the ruling junta, the State
Peace and Development Council, headed by Chairman Senior General Than
Shwe. The control of the Union of Burma, which consists of 14 states
and divisions, and its people is maintained through a strict censorship
of information, restrictions of individual rights and the suppression
of ethnic minorities.
Those who do not support this authoritarian regime are seen as enemies and are treated as criminals. The brave and courageous Burmese people risk their lives to campaign for their democratic rights – rights that every day we have the privilege of taking for granted. The ability that we have to voice our opinions and air our grievances is such a basic yet valuable right, one whose significance we should never be complacent about.
In Burma, protestations for a more democratic society and the right to live under a government that they, the people, have chosen, has been met with incredible and bloody shows of violence from the authorities. No democratic judicial system remains: this country is ruled by martial law. The ruling council have relocated the country’s capital from Rangoon to Nav Pyi Taw, thus further isolating the government from its people.
Burma has all the characteristics of a black-market driven economy: corruption, severe mismanagement of the economy, control of major industries by the ruling regime and little private enterprise. Burma’s armed forces and former rebels co-opted by the government have been accused of mass trafficking of heroin; also Burma is the world’s largest producer of illicit opium. The regime’s management of the economy has led to a downward economic spiral, which has seen a handful of companies acquiring great wealth, power and control and a virtual monopoly over Burma’s industry. Foreign investment has declined because of import controls and inflation in Burma could soon reach a startling 30%. To put the economy’s situation into stark reality, the average citizen has $200 to survive on per annum.
Children, monks and onlookers have been indiscriminately beaten during peaceful protests against the government. Tactics for dealing with those that oppose the enforced regime include night raids, arbitrary arrests and appalling detention conditions, including torture. The true number of people in detention is still unknown, and although the government reports that around 500 people remain detained, with 2,000 having been released, the true number of people held is believed to be substantially greater than officially reported.
Over the last 14 years the UN General Assembly and the UN Commission on Human Rights have passed 28 resolutions condemning the Burmese junta’s overt and mass human rights violations. However, all these resolutions have not been enforced and consequently have done nothing to improve the lives of the Burmese people or move the country any closer towards democratic government.
China has declined the opportunity to take tougher action over the situation in Burma, which has become an increasingly important asset to China for trade in oil and gas. Therefore the Chinese authorities are only prepared to put limited pressure on the Burmese government and have stated that this is a situation that should be resolved by their own people. The Indian government seems equally reticent in becoming involved in Burma and have expressed the wish to see the issue resolved through ‘natural progression’. Recent events have shown this is clearly not a possibility for the people of Burma.
It is time for the governments of the world, China included, to realise it is no longer possible for the international community to turn a blind eye to the reality of the Burmese situation. They can no longer wash their hands of the responsibility of the international community to act to uphold basic human rights. China and India between them hold the potential to exert great influence upon the Burmese regime; that their inaction is driven by fears that they may lose energy deals is morally vacuous. All those countries which trade with Burma, Britain included, are funding the Burmese regime and protecting it from the very international pressure that needs to be brought to bear.
What exactly is being done to increase international talks, to persuade the Chinese and Indian governments to impose economic sanctions, to stand firmly at last in their condemnation of this barbaric regime? What is being done here in Britain? We must also ask how the international community intends to impose UN sanctions on Burma without the support of Russia and China, who are both veto-holding permanent members of the Security Council. US President George Bush has acknowledged that sanctions will not work without the backing of both Chinese and Indian governments. How will the rest of the world put the necessary pressure on India and China?
Our own Labour Government has promised economic development support and an immediate increase in aid in response to genuine reform in Burma. Mr Brown has promised to increase aid by 2010, yet why does he not realise that aid for the people is needed right now? On July 25th 2007 the International Development Committee issued a report strongly criticising the Department for International Development’s aid policy for Burma, calling for aid to be quadrupled by 2013.
If the Burmese people received as much aid as African countries with equivalent levels of poverty, the annual aid budget would be £80 million, not the £8 million we now provide. Even with the planned government increases by 2010, this figure will not come close to being met and certainly not with the speed that is needed.
The Labour Government’s responsibilities need to go far beyond supporting a United Nations’ arms embargo on Burma. It must publish the names of companies that import goods from Burma into the UK, who collectively imported £26 million of goods in the past year. How committed is the Government to imposing a ban on all new investments; on imports of key commodities, such as timber, gems and metals; on financial transactions? Will it freeze the assets of the Burmese regime? As long as the Treasury continues to refuse to disclose the names of these companies, citing a duty of confidentiality, how exactly is the Government hoping to achieve this? The information could be released if the relevant Government Minister decided it was in the national interest to do so.
The British Government should be doing all it can to ensure that the British people are aware of products to avoid, so they can choose to avoid buying Burmese products, even if the Government won’t take action itself to put in place the necessary trade sanctions upon the regime in Burma. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy has urged French companies, including the multinational oil giant Total, not to make any new investments in Burma: will our Labour Government be doing the same?
I am – as I am sure the rest of Britain is – waiting to hear how Mr Brown intends to address the situation by throwing a minimal amount of aid at Burma, accompanied by yet another a half-hearted threat of trade sanctions?
Burma is a country rich in culture, history, and resources. It is the world’s largest exporter of teak and a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. It possesses extremely fertile soil and has important offshore oil and gas deposits. However the gap between the poor and the rich only ever becomes wider. Is it now time for this Government and the international community to act on their long-spoken promises. We must play our part in giving the Burmese people the right to a free existence and the opportunities that only a democratic government can provide.