Twenty three years ago today over 3,000 people protesting for freedom in Burma were gunned down by the country’s military regime. Thousands more were killed during previous months, as the democracy movement swept the nation. Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma after many years living abroad, and rapidly emerged as the democracy leader and a voice of hope.
Since 1988, thousands more people have been killed. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), overwhelmingly won elections held in 1990, spent most of the subsequent two decades under house arrest. The junta refused to recognise the results and instead of handing over power, those elected were jailed, killed or exiled. Even though Aung San Suu Kyi was freed nine months ago, almost 2,000 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars. The military has intensified its offensives against the ethnic nationalities, using rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, the forcible conscription of child soldiers, human minesweepers, torture and killings as a matter of policy on a widespread and systematic level. More than 3,600 villages have been destroyed in eastern Burma alone.
In November last year, twenty years on from the election won by the NLD, the regime held a new, heavily rigged sham poll, and formed a supposedly new, civilian government. Yet in reality the change is cosmetic – a few changes of personnel, perhaps some subtle changes of tone, and a change of clothing from military uniform to civilian suits, but no change in behaviour. In the past nine months the human rights and humanitarian crisis has continued. On 9 June the regime ended a 17-year cease-fire agreement with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), resulting in the displacement of over 20,000 civilians, and the rape of at least 32 women and girls. Of the cases of rape, at least 13 victims were then killed. And these are only the cases that have been documented and reported. A few months earlier, the regime broke a 22-year ceasefire with one of the Shan ethnic armed groups, wreaking death and destruction upon thousands more civilians.
Since 1992, the UN General Assembly has been calling on the regime in Burma to respect the Geneva Conventions. Since 1997, the UN General Assembly has made 18 calls for inquiries into human rights violations. In its 20 resolutions, the General Assembly has detailed at least 15 possible categories of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the regime in Burma. Recent resolutions have described the regime’s human rights abuses as “major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law.”
Surely it is now time to establish a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma? For the sake of justice, for the sake of ending impunity, and for the sake of the shaky credibility of the UN, isn’t it time? The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has repeatedly recommended establishing such an inquiry, concluding that “failing to act on accountability in Myanmar will embolden the perpetrators of international crimes and further postpone long-overdue justice.”
At least 16 countries have expressed support, including 12 EU member states as well as the United States, Canada and Australia. Former UN rapporteurs Paulo Sergio Pinheiro and Yozo Yokota support it. Fourteen Nobel Laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev and Elie Wiesel have called for it. Some of the world’s leading jurists have recommended it. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly expressed her support, particularly when she addressed the US Congress by video link in June. Now is the time to work proactively to build up further support and propose it at the General Assembly in October.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has long been a champion of Burma’s struggle. In opposition, he and David Cameron met Charm Tong, an exiled Shan activist from Burma, in 2005 and he shared a platform with her at an event hosted by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Soon after that, William Hague pressed the Labour Government to support an initiative to bring Burma to the agenda of the UN Security Council. In 2006, the Burma Campaign UK’s Campaigns Manager, Zoya Phan, received a standing ovation at the Conservative Party Conference when she spoke immediately before William Hague. She was invited back the following year. In 2007, at a debate on Burma in the House of Commons in the immediate aftermath of the brutal crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks, William Hague insisted on opening for the opposition, even though the then government fielded only a junior Foreign Office minister. In 2009, he spoke at the launch of Zoya Phan’s book, Little Daughter, despite having returned from the United States that morning. He reportedly read the entire book before speaking at the event. And in 2010 the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission published a report recommending a Commission of Inquiry.
Most importantly, the British Government – and William Hague – support a Commission of Inquiry. So now it is time to make it happen.
Early next month, the European Union Foreign Ministers will meet to consider, among other things, the text of a resolution on Burma sponsored by the EU at the UN General Assembly. When the Foreign Secretary goes to that meeting, he should go armed with an overwhelming case for including in the resolution a proposal for a Commission of Inquiry. The UK should also, at the same time, be working to stiffen the spines of our existing allies on this, particularly the United States, and to build up the numbers needed in the General Assembly. Political and diplomatic resources should be invested in lobbying countries that have not yet expressed support but may be sympathetic. If necessary, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary should be encouraged to personally intervene, placing phone calls or having a quiet word with strategic counterparts around the world.
For over half a century Burma has been ruled by brutal military regimes, and for the past twenty-three years the suffering of the people of Burma has intensified. The UN General Assembly has called for an end to the culture of impunity in Burma on numerous occasions. If the regime is allowed to continue violating international law with no consequence, what message does that send to dictators around the world? A Commission of Inquiry is not only necessary if the UN General Assembly’s authority and credibility are to be upheld, it may also serve to prevent future human rights violations in Burma, and may well contribute towards establishing a meaningful dialogue between the regime, the democracy movement, the ethnic nationalities and the international community. It is a vital step towards national reconciliation. Britain has the opportunity and the responsibility to take the lead – we owe it to the people of Burma to do so.