Britain’s responsibility to Burma


Universe Column for July 16th 2006

by David Alton

It was recently Aung San Suu Kyi’s 61st birthday – and like so many of her other birthdays since she won 82% of the seats in the Burmese Parliamentary elections 16 years ago, there were no celebrations just another day under house arrest. Tony Blair issued another demand that she be released – which, like the 28 United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Commission resolutions, is a fine sentiment but there is a yawning chasm between the rhetoric and the hard-headed actions for which the situation is crying out.

Throughout these 16 years the Burmese military regimes have repeatedly promised and failed to deliver democratic change. In addition, they have accelerated their cruel campaign of attrition against the country’s ethnic minorities. In the case of the brave Karen people it is nothing short of genocide.

In Parliament I marked Suu’s birthday by telling the House of Lords about a nine-year-old Karen girl who had been shot at point blank range, having watched her father and grandmother being killed. There are shocking reports of beheadings and mutilations of Karen villagers – 18,000 of whom have been displaced in the past few weeks. Some will doubtless join the 120,000 who have lived for years in make shift camps along the Thai border – which, as I have seen for myself – barely allow people to do more than cling on to life.

So far, the approach to the Burmese regime by the international community and its failure to implement strong sanctions against Burma has been a complete and utter failure. The Burmese military’s systematic atrocities against ethnic groups such as the Karen, Karenni and Shan are still very grave and as the current Burmese military offensive in Karen state demonstrates, are even escalating (over 16,000 Karen have so far been displaced by this current offensive and many have also been killed.) Burma is also now no closer to democracy than it was back in 1990 and Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

After more than 10 years, there has still been no improvement in the situation of the Karen, Karenni and Shan or that of Burma’s pro-democracy movement. More of the same weak and ineffectual policy towards the Burmese regime will simply maintain the current, horrendous status quo for decades to come.

What is urgently needed is a much stronger policy on Burma which will involve tough sanctions and thereby put real pressure on the Burmese regime to change its ways.

Such a new policy should include the following characteristics:

  • Treating the Burmese regime’s systematic atrocities against the Karen, Karenni and Shan people as being of at least equal importance as the situation of the pro-democracy movement and political prisoners in Burma and giving EQUAL coverage to both issues.
  • Putting both these issues on the agenda of the U.N Security Council – and demanding a binding resolution of the Security Council. This should impose a global arms and investment embargo on Burma as well as strongly condemning the systematic atrocities by the Burmese military against the Karen, Karenni and Shan people.
  • Very seriously considering the case that has been made by Parliamentarians and human rights groups, such as the Jubilee Campaign, that the systematic atrocities by the Burmese military against the Karen, Karenni and Shan people amount to Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes.

So far the Foreign Office appears to have ignored these claims as a reflex action, without giving any deep consideration to them or attempting to seriously research the subject, and failing to give detailed reasons for their position. At the very least, the repeated and deliberate attacks against Karen, Karenni and Shan civilians by the Burmese military must surely be a flagrant violation of Common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions which prohibits the targeting of non-combatants during conflict. It should be clear to anybody with even a basic knowledge of the laws of war that War Crimes are being committed against the Karen, Karenni and Shan by the Burmese military. Unfortunately, the Foreign Office has previously denied that even War Crimes are being committed.

Until such time as Security Council resolutions banning investment in Burma are obtained, Britain as the former colonial power in Burma, has a special responsibility to lead the way on sanctions, by banning all new investment by UK companies in Burma and encouraging all its European Union partners to do likewise, just as the United States did with regard to U.S companies, back in the nineties.

The Foreign Office policy of discouraging investment in Burma lacks teeth as companies are free to blatantly ignore such advice at no cost to themselves. To be truly effective, this policy must be backed by the force of law, imposing a ban on such investments by UK companies in Burma.

A UN Security Council global embargo against Burma on investment and arms is absolutely crucial. Without concerted international action to significantly weaken the economic and military strength of the Burmese regime, it will be practically impossible to get that regime to take any of our concerns about human rights in Burma seriously. Burma’s military regime will only continue to string all of us along, making an occasional superficial concession, followed by even more harsh and repressive measures. The people of Burma deserve far better than this policy of “one step forward, two steps back.”