THE UN and the world must protest against a sham poll held by a criminal regime.
Frightened, vulnerable and with a tone of despair, a man with no legs and five children sat in the darkness under a tarpaulin and whispered: "When I had two legs, I could earn money for the whole family and I could give my children money for snacks. Now I cannot provide for them. It is not a normal life. I had to flee the Burma army many times. I did portering for the Burma army many times."
His legs had been blown off by a landmine that he stepped on in the jungle while looking for vegetables, he said. His story was typical of many of the refugees along the Thai-Burma border who were subjected to forced labour by the military regime, and his conclusion summed up his people's struggle: "Run and run and run until now -- this is my life."
Since January, the refugees have been facing constant harassment from the Thai military, and in February the Thai authorities were ready to deport them to Burma. The deportations were averted at the last moment after international pressure, but the harassment continued. Most of the refugees have since given in to the grinding intimidation and fled the camp. Some have returned to a life on the run in the jungle; others may have attempted to disperse in Thailand as illegal immigrants. Those who have gone back to their villages have walked into a death trap, in an area full of landmines, controlled by the Burmese army, where they would almost certainly be subjected to forced labour and torture.
More than 3500 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed since 1996, and at least a million people displaced. Forced labour, rape and torture are widespread and systematic. I met one refugee who said she had been forced to dig her own grave, and another whose parents were killed when he was a boy and whose wife and children were later shot dead.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma concluded last month that this "pattern of gross and systematic violation of human rights" was "the result of a state policy that involves authorities in the executive, military and judiciary at all levels". The rapporteur argues that the Burmese regime may be guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and says the UN should establish a commission of inquiry to investigate.
Australia, Britain and the Czech Republic have agreed in principle with the rapporteur's call for an investigation. Now they need to work to achieve it.
However, many in the international community refuse to accept the truth: that Burma's military regime is illegitimate and criminal. When the regime published its election laws recently, the reaction was muted. Yet the election laws show more blatantly than ever what a sham the regime's planned election will be.
No wonder the National League for Democracy has decided to boycott the sham poll.
The new laws ban political prisoners from belonging to a political party, which means the NLD would have to abandon its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and hundreds of its members.
Political parties are required to support the new constitution, pushed through in a sham referendum two years ago, which gives the military a quarter of the parliamentary seats and bans Suu Kyi from seeking election.
The NLD, which won the last elections in 1990 with 82 per cent of the seats, is fighting for its existence and will probably be deemed illegal by the regime after May 7. Yet all US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley said was: "This is not what we had suggested to the Burmese government."
However, some countries appear to have had enough. Burma's neighbours are increasingly frustrated. The Philippines Foreign Minister has described the elections as "a complete farce".
In Burma, opinion is divided. Some people intend to take part, in the hope of prising open some space for the future. Others argue that the polls should be boycotted. Both positions are understandable, and the choice is tough.
But for the international community, the choice is clear. It must not give the election any credibility. Instead, the UN must insist no process that so blatantly excludes Suu Kyi and the NLD can be acceptable. A Security Council resolution should call on the regime to engage in dialogue with the NLD and ethnic groups, and spell out benchmarks that are required to measure progress. It is time for the UN to do the right thing: reject the election, investigate the war crimes claims and bring the generals to justice. Only then is there a chance of real change for Burma.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights advocate with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, based in London, and the author of a new biography of Burma's dictator, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant, to be published next month by Silkworm Books