Burma’s crimes against humanity must not be ignored

Caroline Cox and Benedict Rogers

As we remember the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and mark International Human Rights Day tomorrow, there are many countries and people who deserve our immediate attention, including, urgently, Burma.

We have just returned from another visit to Burma’s borders. Over the past fifteen years, both of us have travelled regularly to Burma’s borderlands, to meet refugees who have fled the country, and internally displaced people trapped behind the borders in the conflict zones.

Burma is ruled by one of the world’s most brutal military regimes, with the Orwellian name of the State Peace and Development Council. It is guilty of every possible human rights violation. In 1990, the junta held elections, which were overwhelmingly won by the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). They won 82 per cent of the parliamentary seats, yet the military rejected the results, imprisoned the victors and intensified its grip on power. Most of those elected 19 years ago remain in prison or in exile today. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 14 years under house arrest, and was given a further 18 months in a sham trial earlier this year.

Aung San Suu Kyi deserves our utmost respect, and serves as a crucial symbolic figure for the suffering of her people. But she at least receives some international media attention. Many of her fellow prisoners suffer unreported. More than 2,000 political activists are in prison, subjected to horrific torture, denied medical treatment and, according to eye-witnesses, in labour camps they are yoked like oxen and forced to plough the fields.

Even more forgotten are Burma’s ethnic nationalities, who to varying degrees are suffering a campaign of ethnic cleansing, religious persecution and crimes against humanity. They face cultural genocide, and there may even be a case of attempted genocide to investigate.

Last month, we visited the Chin people of western Burma, along the border with India. The Chin are predominantly Christian, and are persecuted for their religion as well as their ethnicity. They have a tradition of building crosses on hill-tops, but in recent years the Burma Army has forced Chin Christian villages to tear down the crosses, and construct Buddhist pagodas in their place. Chin children are lured from Christian homes, and forced to become novice Buddhist monks. From the regime which brutally slaughtered Buddhist monks protesting in September 2007, it is the ultimate irony – it is a regime which will use any tool to stay in power, including religion. The Chin people, like other ethnic groups, endure widespread and systematic forced labour and rape. Over the past two years, their suffering has been compounded by a chronic food shortage, caused by a natural phenomenon. Every fifty years, the bamboo flowers attract a plague of rats. The rats multiply rapidly, and destroy virtually all means of survival – rice fields, rice barns and other food supplies. We have highlighted this and our advocacy led to the British Government providing £800,000 for emergency food aid. In the latest cruel twist, however, we heard allegations on our recent visit that aid channelled through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was being distributed to malnourished, starving people in at least 17 of the affected villages in the form of loans, rather than aid. As if that were not absurd enough, villagers were told to repay the loans at two hundred per cent interest. In other cases, people already weakened by malnutrition have been forced to work for their food. Sometimes the inhumanity of international organisations is shocking.

On previous visits to Burma’s eastern border with Thailand, we have heard testimonies of rape, torture and forced labour from the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Mon ethnic groups. Since 1996, over 3,300 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed and at least a million people driven from their homes. We have sat with women who have been gang-raped by soldiers of the Burma Army, looked into the eyes of a woman whose 15 year-old son had been tied to a tree and beheaded and heard another woman tell how her husband’s eyes were gouged out, his lips torn off, his ears cut off. Another woman described how her husband was hung upside down from a tree, his eyes gouged out, and then drowned.

These are crimes against humanity. International organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have produced numerous reports, in addition to our own, documenting these atrocities. The United Nations itself has accused the regime in Burma of violating international law. It is time therefore for the UN to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes. The British government should lead the way.

The UN must also introduce a universal arms embargo. Britain supports this in principle, but needs to be more pro-active in turning it into a reality.

Humanitarian aid for the ethnic groups along Burma’s borders is desperately needed. Britain has provided some assistance cross-border to the internally displaced people in eastern Burma, and this should be increased. The British government must also continue its assistance to victims of the chronic food shortage in Chin State, taking measures to ensure that it reaches all the people in need.

As the regime prepares to hold new elections next year, it is vital for the international community to remember the basis on which these elections are held. A new constitution was introduced last year, following a completely sham referendum. The constitution guarantees a quarter of the parliamentary seats for the military, and excludes Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners from contesting. The General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) has described it as a “death sentence for ethnic diversity”. Real change will not come in Burma without significant revisions to the new constitution, and guaranteed inclusive free and fair elections. In particular, the world must pay attention to the plight of Burma’s ethnic nationalities, who make up forty per cent of the population and who face a regime hell-bent on their destruction. As one Chin student told us, “Please help us to fight for our indigenous rights. I am concerned and worried about our future in Burma. Burma’s political crisis is not only a democracy problem, it is also an ethnic and constitutional problem.” This will only be solved by meaningful tripartite dialogue between the regime, the NLD and the ethnic nationalities – and only international pressure will secure such an outcome.

Baroness Cox is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords and Chief Executive of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART). She is co-author of ‘This Immoral Trade: Slavery in the Twenty-First Century’, with a chapter dedicated to Burma.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide , and author of several books on Burma, including “Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant”, to be published in 2010 by Silkworm Books.

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