Time to make good on promise to Myanmar
June 4, 2009
By Benedict Rogers, Asahi Shimbun (Japan): Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stood trial last month on new, false charges despite having spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest. She has committed no crime: Indeed, it is the regime that is criminal.
Her imprisonment is typical of this immoral and barbaric junta. A year ago, the military regime in Myanmar (Burma) imposed a sham Constitution through a rigged referendum, which enshrines military rule and excludes the democracy movement and major ethnic groups. The referendum was a rubber stamp, in which the regime claimed 99 percent turnout, with 92.4 percent in favor of the new Constitution. Yet, the authorities threatened, harassed, intimidated and bribed the people into voting “yes,” and in some places people were denied the vote altogether; local officials cast ballots on their behalf. The backdrop was a law which prohibited criticism of the Constitution and imposed prison sentences on campaigners for a no vote.
The referendum was held just a week after Myanmar’s worst humanitarian disaster. A cyclone struck the country on May 2. The storm, and the regime’s initial refusal of international aid, caused the deaths of at least 140,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million others. The regime’s failure to help the victims, and its rejection–and subsequent restriction–of outside help, was criminal. To proceed with a vote when people were struggling for survival added to the callousness.
The regime’s inhumanity was exposed for all to see, though it was a continuation of its record of barbarity. The brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks in the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 shocked the world. Among the dead was Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai. The junta’s decades-long campaign of ethnic cleansing in eastern Myanmar amounts to crimes against humanity–rape as a weapon of war, forced labor, the use of human minesweepers, the killing of civilians, and the destruction of more than 3,300 villages have turned Myanmar into Asia’s Darfur. Suu Kyi is now the world’s only detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The United Nations has ruled that her detention violates international and Burmese law.
With this background, one would expect Japan to be outspoken. As the leading democracy in the region, Japan could use its influence to promote change in Myanmar. Instead, the Foreign Ministry is pursuing a program of extraordinary appeasement.
Myanmar’s regime recently announced the release of 6,313 prisoners, and Japan welcomed their release. However, only 30 of these are political prisoners. Japan’s Foreign Ministry made no mention of the more than 2,100 prisoners of conscience who languish in prison, subjected to horrific torture. In the past the regime has recruited criminals released from prison into its proxy militia organizations, which it uses to physically attack democracy activists. It would not be surprising if the regime recruited those recently released for the same purpose.
In the past year, I have met with Japanese Foreign Ministry officials on two occasions. Both times I thought I had entered a scene from “Alice in Wonderland.” Prior to the referendum, when I raised concerns about the process, a Foreign Ministry official sprang to the regime’s defense. “They are trying their best,” he told me. “No system is perfect.” He compared Myanmar’s referendum with the Florida count in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, acknowledging that perhaps some “mistakes” happen. When I reminded him that Burmese campaigners for a vote against the Constitution were jailed, he argued that the junta had introduced “due process.” When asked to explain, he replied: “They don’t just lock people up. They have a trial first.”
In March, I met the same man again, and his rhetoric had not changed. The regime is planning elections in 2010, which will be as rigged as the referendum. But the Foreign Ministry welcomes the elections and is providing technical assistance. I reminded him that no one believes these elections will be remotely free and fair. His answer? “It is very difficult to know what is the meaning of free and fair.”
And now, after Suu Kyi has been moved to the notorious Insein Prison, on new, completely false charges, the Foreign Ministry merely “observes” the situation with “deep concern.” Her defense lawyer’s license has been revoked, but Japan still hopes that the international community will give “high regard for a general election in 2010.” Come on.
Japan has a historical obligation to Myanmar, from its relationship with Aung San and the Thirty Comrades through its occupation of Burma in World War II to Suu Kyi’s time studying in Kyoto and the murder of Kenji Nagai. Foreign Ministry officials of the kind I have met do Japan no favors at all. Their acquiescence in the regime’s dirty work should be replaced with a robust rejection of the regime’s sham elections, and pro-active leadership in support of an arms embargo at the U.N. Security Council. Japan should introduce targeted financial sanctions aimed at the generals ruling Myanmar, and support a U.N. commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity. It is time to fulfill the false promises Japan made almost 70 years ago–to help the Burmese people liberate themselves and have the genuine independence they have sacrificed so much to achieve.
Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist
Time to make good on promise to Myanmar