From time to time, Burma hits the world headlines. It did so in September 2007, when Buddhist monks courageously led peaceful protests against the country’s brutal military regime, and faced a bloody crackdown. The following year, when Cyclone Nargis struck and the regime initially rejected international aid and access for aid workers, horrific stories of the dead, dying and displaced were again on our television screens. Then last year, after an American Mormon, John Yettaw, swam across the lake to the home of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the international spotlight was briefly on Burma. Ironically, it was Aung San Suu Kyi who was put on trial, and sentenced to a further three years for having a visitor without permission – even though he arrived uninvited. Burma’s dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, reduced the sentence to 18 months, in an act deliberately designed to make him look compassionate while keeping her out of the way until after the regime’s sham elections.
Once again, Burma is in the news. The scenes last weekend of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi emerging from her latest stretch of seven years’ house arrest, and greeting crowds of thousands waiting at the gate of her home, were as visually inspiring as Nelson Mandela’s walk out of prison twenty years ago. Scenes of her addressing crowds the next day from the offices of her banned party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and giving interviews to the BBC and ABC, had been unimaginable even a few weeks ago. She has, after all, spent a total of 15 of the past 20 years in detention.
Yet Burma has suffered from the international media’s short attention span. Each time a key event occurs, the media spotlight shines into the darkness of Burma for a few days, and then the media circus moves on and world attention moves with it. This time, we must not let that happen.
While Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is very welcome, there is a long way to go before Burma’s suffering at the hands of this regime is over. Comparisons with Mandela’s release have been made by many commentators, but the parallel stops at the gate of her house. Mandela was freed because South Africa’s apartheid regime was crumbling, and FW de Klerk knew he had to reform. He engaged with Mandela to chart a peaceful transition to democracy, and Mandela’s release was part of a process of change. In Burma, if the generals have their way, there will be no change.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed not because Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s dictator, has become a reformer, but because he cares more than we realise about his international image, and offers this fig leaf to divert attention from the sham elections, offensives against Burma’s ethnic groups and crimes against humanity.
So the international community must ask what next?
Aung San Suu Kyi has signalled her determination to unify the democracy movement and engage in dialogue with the generals. She has displayed a remarkable absence of bitterness, and extraordinary magnanimity in suggesting she would like the generals to have the opportunity to be the real heroes in this. They can do that by defying all expectations, abandoning their past track record, and taking up her offer of talks. For this to happen, the international community must help.
First, pressure on the junta must be maintained and intensified. Now is not the time to go soft. The message must be given, clearly and unambiguously, to the regime that until it frees all the remaining 2,200 political prisoners, declares a nationwide ceasefire in the ethnic areas and engages in a meaningful dialogue with the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi and genuine representatives of Burma’s ethnic groups, we cannot speak of progress.
The regime’s widespread and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, torture and the recruitment of child soldiers must stop, and there must be access for international humanitarian organisations to all parts of the country. The military must end its shoot-on-sight policy in which ethnic civilians, including the elderly, women and children are killed at point-blank range.
Since 1996, more than 3,500 villages in eastern Burma alone have been destroyed. In other parts of the country, particularly Chin, Arakan and Kachin states in western and northern Burma, religious persecution of Christians and Muslims is a policy alongside rape and forced labour. Only when all the people of Burma, regardless of ethnicity and religion, are assured equal rights and real peace can we talk of progress.
Equally, however, the junta should be assured that if it does these things, its relationship with the outside world can change and sanctions can be eased. A carefully co-ordinated strategy of targeted pressure and high-level engagement must be developed. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must take personal leadership of these efforts, and lead a new UN initiative to encourage dialogue in Burma. Australia should play its part in encouraging this.
Dialogue is the one policy which unites everyone. The UN, the European Union, the United States, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and even China have called for dialogue. Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities have always indicated their readiness to talk. Now a sustained effort to begin talks must be made. For Burma’s regime, this is an opportunity to prove us all wrong and respond to the wishes of Burma’s people. For Ban Ki-moon, and the entire international community, this is an opportunity to restore the UN’s credibility, show leadership and finally stand by Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma with action rather than rhetoric. This is a carpe diem moment.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) based in London. He has made more than 30 visits to Burma and its borderlands, and is the author of 'Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant' (Silkworm Books, 2010).