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Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He has visited Burma and its border areas 23 times, and is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People (Monarch, 2004). He was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election.

Twenty years ago today, Burma’s military regime intensified its brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests. Thousands were killed in 1988, over several months of protests in the biggest single uprising the country had seen. But in one single day, several thousand died – and that day has become known to the Burmese as “8888”.

At 1pm today, a protest will take place at the Burmese embassy at 19, Charles Street (nearest tube: Green Park).  Earlier in the day, a memorial will be unveiled, and in the evening a photo exhibition will be held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Details can be obtained from the Burma Campaign UK.

As we remember those who gave their lives for freedom twenty years ago, our minds turn to the main event today: the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. It is a strange twist of fate that China is in the spotlight – for few countries have done more to prop up the Generals in Burma, and no country holds more influence.

But in making the link between the regime and China, we must be careful to avoid falling into a defeatist trap. There are some who argue that China holds the keys to change in Burma, and there is nothing anyone else can do. That is Neville Chamberlain-esque nonsense. China, with its arms sales to the regime, major investments and veto power at the UN Security Council, is without doubt a major obstacle – and potential opportunity – to change Burma, but there is more that the UK and others can still do. And twenty years on from “8888”, it should be a source of shame to Britain that we have not done more.

Burma was a British colony, and many of Burma’s ethnic groups, especially the Karen, fought loyally alongside the Allies against the Japanese in the Second World War. That loyalty has been betrayed. For years, Burma was dealt with by junior Foreign Office ministers, and almost never reached the agenda of the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary – a sign of how low a priority it was. The US always led the way, and we sometimes followed – slowly. When Bishop Desmond Tutu and former Czech President Vaclav Havel published a report calling for Burma to be brought to the agenda of the UN Security Council, the US declared its support within 24 hours. The British Government took several months to make up its mind, and only added its weight under pressure from Parliament.

Only in the past year, and only as a result of intense public and parliamentary pressure, has Burma policy risen up the agenda – in response to the brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks and civilian protestors last September, and Cyclone Nargis in May. To his credit, and in contrast to his predecessors, Gordon Brown has taken a close personal interest in Burma, as has the Foreign Secretary David Miliband. The difference it makes, when the Prime Minister takes charge instead of leaving it to junior ministers and civil servants, is stark. But it took a long time, and a lot of effort, to get to where we are today.

The Conservative Party’s record on Burma when we were in government was
not good either. We supported trade fairs in Rangoon while the Burma
Army bombed Karen villages. But in opposition, for several years it has
been Conservatives who have made much of the running. The Conservative
Party Human Rights Commission held its very first hearing on Burma, in
2006. Nigel Evans MP joined a sleep-out in tents in Parliament Square
last November, in solidarity with Burma. John Bercow MP, when he was
Shadow International Development Secretary, visited the Thai-Burmese
border with me, and returned as the most passionate voice on the
subject in the House of Commons. He now chairs the All Party
Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma, and came with me last year
to the India-Burma border. Andrew Mitchell MP, the current Shadow
International Development Secretary, also visited the Thai-Burma border
with me, and went to Rangoon – and he too has followed-through by
consistently raising Burma in Parliament. William Hague has met several
Burmese dissidents, and three times shared a platform with Karen
activist Zoya Phan at party conferences. In 2006 David Cameron met
Charm Tong, founder of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), and  in
the aftermath of the cyclone he visited Burmese exiles in London,
called for air drops and demanded that the Generals be be brought
before the International Criminal Court (ICC). For years, the
Conservatives have backed tougher sanctions, and supported calls for
Burma to be raised at the UN Security Council – long before the British
Government did.

But there is more that can be done by the current Government, and – if
it doesn’t act – then by the next Conservative Government. The most
immediate step is for the UN to set specific, achievable, tangible
benchmarks for progress, with deadlines and penalties for a failure to
comply. Britain could lead the way in proposing this. Such benchmarks
should be set when the UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari visits Burma
again later this month. His visit should not simply be another round of
diplomatic niceties with no action. There have been 35 such visits to
Burma by various envoys, and they have achieved little. Gambari should
go armed with a UN demand for the release of Burma’s 2,000 political
prisoners as the first measurable test for the regime.  Benchmarks
should not be timeless – so the regime should be told it must deliver
on this by the time UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits Burma in
December. Further benchmarks include the release of Burma’s democracy
leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an end to military offensives against Burma’s
ethnic groups, the opening of unrestricted access to international
humanitarian organisations to all parts of the country, and the
commencement of meaningful dialogue with Burma’s democracy movement and
ethnic nationalities.

If the regime still fails to make progress within the next few months,
it should be left in no doubt that it will face the consequences.
Sanctions should be increased and intensified, including targeted
financial sanctions aimed at the Generals’ personal pockets. A
universal arms embargo should be imposed by the UN. Pressure should be
mounted on Burma’s neighbours, especially China, India and Thailand,
whose policies of appeasement make them complicit with the junta’s
crimes.

Two further measures should be considered. Both require political guts
and carry risks, but would in themselves send the world, and the junta,
a profound message. First, a credentials challenge should be made at
the UN. The regime, which calls itself the State Peace and Development
Council (SPDC), is illegal, immoral and incompetent. It lost elections
in 1990 to the National League for Democracy (NLD), and therefore has
no mandate to represent Burma. The exiled winners of those elections,
in the form of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma
(NCGUB) or one of the other legitimate umbrella representative bodies,
could take Burma’s seat in the UN General Assembly. Simply mounting the
challenge would tell Burma’s friends that this is a regime with
diminishing credibility, legitimacy or viability in the international
community.

Secondly, in light of the prosecution of Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir
and the capture of Radovan Karodicz, the time has come for a case to be
brought against Burma’s Generals for crimes against humanity. The
military regime is carrying out every possible human rights violation,
and ticks almost all the boxes for crimes against humanity, war crimes
and possible genocide. Over 70,000 child soldiers have been forcibly
conscripted, rape is used as a weapon of war, and forced labour is
widespread. More than 3,200 villages in eastern Burma have been
destroyed by the Burma Army since 1996, displacing over a million
people. Civilians are used as human minesweepers and religious
minorities face persecution. In addition, Burma is the world’s second
major opium producer and a leading producer of amphetamines – and the
regime is knee-deep in drugs.

In the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, there was talk of
exercising the UN’s “responsibility to protect”. French, British and US
naval ships were poised off Burma’s coast, laden with aid. Somehow,
once again the regime played its usual card – promising just enough to
buy time – and the ships turned around and sailed away. But as usual,
even the little that the regime promised has hardly been delivered.
According to the UN, over a million cyclone victims have still not
received help. At least 2.5 million are still homeless and over 130,000
dead. And now the UN says the regime has been stealing millions of
dollars of aid money through its below-market fixed exchange rates –
something the Burma Campaign UK claims the UN has known about for
years.

The case was made then for a referral to the ICC. The regime’s
deliberate restriction and obstruction of aid was deemed “criminal
negligence” by the US Defence Secretary. The case is in fact far
stronger than simply the junta’s failures during the cyclone. The
regime has been perpetrating the kind of crimes against humanity
described above for decades – and now, once again it is showing the
same kind of extraordinary inhumanity in the face of another, unknown
humanitarian crisis developing. In Chin State, western Burma, a famine
has been caused by a natural phenomenon which occurs twice a century.
The bamboo blossoms, causing a plague of rats of almost biblical
proportions. The rats multiply in vast numbers, destroying paddy fields
and rice barns. Over 200 villages and 100,000 people have reached
starvation point – and just as in the cyclone, the regime did nothing
to prepare the people, nothing to help, and has arrested those few Chin
relief workers who have tried to deliver aid. Worse of all, the World
Food Programme (WFP) was taken to visit Chin State, and declared that
there was no famine. The fact was, they went to the wrong part of Chin
State – a part that does not even have any bamboo.

The Department for International Development (DfID) has significantly
improved its policies on Burma, after a long hard-fought battle with
activists. For years, Britain refused to support efforts to deliver aid
through cross-border initiatives, and gave a paltry few million pounds
a year through Rangoon. In the past year, however, Britain has doubled
its Burma aid budget, and has been the largest contributor to the
cyclone efforts on top of that. DfID has reversed its hostility to
cross-border aid, and agreed to fund some initiatives. It has even
begun preliminary enquiries into helping on Burma’s western border,
something I have been advocating for a long time. All of this is
welcome. But more is required. Increased support for cross-border aid,
on all Burma’s borders, and funding for indigenous human rights, civil
society and pro-democracy projects – preparing Burma’s future and
supporting democracy, not the regime – is much needed. Today, twenty
years on, Britain must decide to repay the debt we owe Burma, and take
a pro-active lead to work for the measures outlined in this article. As
the Olympics begin, it is right that pressure be intensified on China
to exercise a more responsible policy – but China should not be taken
as an excuse for our own inaction. If the current Government chooses
not do more, I hope that the next Conservative Government will live up
to the hopes the Party has inspired in Opposition.

2 comments for: Benedict Rogers: A manifesto for Burma’s freedom to mark “8888”

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