The Daily Telegraph, UK
June 20, 2010
There will be no shortage of tributes for Aung San Suu Kyi today as she marks her 65th birthday
It is Aung San Suu Kyi’s 15th year spent under house arrest since 1989. However, as Burma heads for elections for the first time in two decades, freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi – and her fellow 2,200 political prisoners – remains a remote prospect.
Indeed, the run-up to the polls slated for later this year may be a period of intensified repression of human rights, especially for the “three freedoms” of expression, peaceful assembly and association. International scrutiny of and robust response to these violations must increase as the Burmese authorities appear set to stamp out any dissent ahead of the vote. The new UK government can play a key role in helping to reverse that trend and continue to champion human rights in Burma.
The international community, including Burma’s influential neighbours such as China, India and Japan and the ASEAN countries, all agree that they want the forthcoming elections to be “free and fair”. However, this hope does not go nearly far enough to protect the rights that are most at risk in the upcoming period.
Over the past several years at least, Amnesty’s research shows that ethnic minority political opponents and activists have been systematically repressed by the Burmese authorities, including through arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial executions. The doubling of the number of political prisoners since the start of the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007 is a huge indictment of the grim human rights situation in the country.
Among other restrictions, vaguely worded provisions in the electoral laws state that anyone who tries to “disrupt” the vote through speech or publication will be prosecuted. Similarly, punitive action awaits those who try to persuade persons to vote or not to vote in the elections. And no one who is currently detained, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, can participate in the elections. It is therefore simply not enough for governments to adopt a wait and see attitude.
The three freedoms must be safeguarded for all, whether people are participating in the elections or boycotting them.
The British Government can lead by example and persuade all those countries that wish for free and fair elections to call for the three freedoms to be respected. They must also be prepared to speak out forcefully when individuals are harassed and detained for their peaceful political views and activities, deemed unfavourable by the state as the polls approach.
Many activists in Burma continue to organise themselves, peacefully and at great personal risk, to challenge the government’s repressive agenda.
The British government can practically support their legitimate work by making the implementation of the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders a priority for the EU in Burma – something that is long overdue in the country.
The guidelines, adopted in 2004, provide EU member states with practical guidance on how to protect and support human rights defenders, especially in third countries. If the EU needs to honour its responsibilities for protecting human rights defenders. As a starting point, the EU should talk to the activists themselves about how the guidelines can be best implemented in Burma.
With each passing year that Aung San Suu Kyi is still in detention, events marking her birthday have become increasingly poignant. However, if the birthday of the world’s most famous prisoner of conscience is to be meaningful for human rights in Burma this year, governments worldwide must end their glib rhetoric about free and fair elections in the country and call for the three freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association to be firmly at the centre of the elections.
Haider Kikabhoy is Amnesty International’s Burma campaigner