BURMA AND JAMES MAWDSLEY


Article For The Tablet by David Alton

James Mawdsley’s welcome release from his Burmese incarceration should serve to spur us all into a tougher stand against one of the world’s remaining pariah states. It would be a mistake to see the decision to free James as an act of generous compassion. In achieving his objective of forcing the world to take note of the plight of the indigenous Burmese James had simply become too much trouble to them. Despite beating him up and cruelly leaving him for over a year in isolation they hoped to break his remarkable spirit. Having failed to do that they simply calculated that he would be less trouble outside than inside the country. In the long term this may prove to be yet another miscalculation by a regime notorious for its use of brute force rather than finesse. This extraordinarily articulate young man, driven by his deep faith and belief in justice and human rights, will become an authoritative moral voice which will now have access to millions of hearts and minds. And what will he use his voice to say? He will focus, as he has done throughout, not on his own privations and mistreatment but on the denial of basic democratic rights to the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and on the genocide inflicted on ethnic minorities such as the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan.

Two years ago I visited the refugee camps on the Burma border. It was after this that James made contact with me. I took evidence on both sides of the border from our former World War Two allies, the Karen. Since then, I have maintained regular contact with the Karen and the Shan. What I heard and saw then has left me in no doubt that Burma is experiencing genocide – and I use that word, not as exaggerated hyperbole, but in the strict sense laid out in Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Crime of Genocide.

Over 30,000 Karen civilians have died as a result of Burmese military action since 1992 alone; over 300,000 Karen and a similar number of Shan are internally displaced. Many are normally killed on sight when discovered. About 120,000 Karen and 100,000 Shan have been forced to flee to Thailand to escape the atrocities of the Burmese Army. Yet there is no concerted attempt to bring those responsible to justice. Last year I went to the American Congress and presented evidence to their Human Rights Committee, urging the US Administration to press for genocide charges to be laid. The Americans are sympathetic to this argument but regrettably the UK Government has thus far declined to support it. Instead, we have simply lobbied for the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – good in itself but wholly irrelevant in the case of Burma. As yet, only a handful of countries have ratified the statute setting up the court. These twenty need to be joined by a further forty countries before anything can happen. It is therefore impossible to say when it will begin to function. It will not, in any event, have retrospective jurisdiction and it would be an appalling travesty if a well intentioned initiative were to become the tool used by the perpetrators of mass murder to evade prosecution. A former Labour Solicitor General, Lord Archer of Sandwell, put it well when he said “It is good to know that we may soon have a fire brigade but, if one’s house is burning, a fire extinguisher now is more important than a fire brigade next year. The ICC is not an effective solution. Instead the Government should be lobbying at the UN Security Council for the creation of an International Criminal Tribunal to try the Burmese regime and their subordinates for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It is extraordinarily defeatist and feeble to argue that because the Chinese might veto such an attempt that it is not worth trying.

Last week the UN Special Rappporteur on Burma, Mr.Rajsoomer Lallah QC, detailed further evidence of terrible atrocities in Burma. An earlier report, in 1998, by the International Labour Organisation(ILO) was a 254-page horror story. All credit to the ILO and the UN but wasn’t it rather inconsistent to appoint Burma’s Ambassador to the UN as the chairman of the UN General Assembly Committee on Disarmament and International Security (with the support of HMG)? Either this is a pariah state or it is not. An earlier submission by Mr.Lallah was placed before the UN General Assembly. At paragraph 59 he said: …violations include extrajudicial and arbitrary executions (not sparing women and children), rape, torture, inhuman treatment, forced labour and denial of freedom of movement. These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest that they are not simply isolated acts of individual misbehaviour of middle and lower rank officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level entailing political and legal responsibility. If this is so, why does the world then keep its eyes closed when it comes to trying those responsible or even indicating that one day they may be held to account? Why is the world so supine when it comes to organising a coherent policy of economic sanctions? With body language composed of shut eyes and muted mouths it is little wonder that the Burmese military believe that the international community is not serious in its prosecution of the case against their regime. There is no coherent approach to the prosecution of genocide charges or to the imposition of world wide sanctions. The publishers of The Lonely Planet continue to encourage British tourists to travel there – and to stay in hotels built by slave labour. The American Administration, which has a total ban on Burmese investment, has been badly let down by its European allies who permit their companies to exploit the withdrawl of American petroleum companies. The Catholic human rights lawyer, Lord Brennan, put his finger on this point when he said: For the sake of the people of Burma we should stop trading with that country.People in Parliament and in this nation felt in past years that South Africa induleged in an outrageous system called apartheid. Is Burma any different?” Lord Brennan was this week pursuing his argument in Geneva, raising the use of child labour in Burma.

The ILO say that the widespread use of forced labour is a crime against humanity that is punishable under the terms of the statutes setting up the four ad hoc international criminal tribunals established since the Second World War to try those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law. In their conclusions they state that “There is abundant evidence before the Commission showing the pervasive use of forced labour imposed on the civilian population of Myanmar by the authorities and the military.

Why then do we not do something about it? Two weeks ago I initiated a debate in Parliament pressing for genocide charges to be brought. My call was supported by Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, Lord Archer of Sandwell and the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Weatherill, among others. Richard Harries said that “the Karen, Karenni and Shan people need international support now before thousands more are relocated and killed. And what will be the implications for us if we fail to act? Quite recently the Organisation of African Unity demanded payment of significant reparations to Rwandans by the countries who failed to prevent the genocide there in 1994. Everything that happened in Rwanda – and the subsequent successful prosecution of individuals on genocide charges -, everything which has happened in the Balkans, and all we know of the Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, teaches us that tyrants are emboldened when free nations fail to act. What point is there in Britain maintaining its claim to a seat at the United Nations Security Council unless it uses it to pursue the high political themes of human rights and justice? My hope now is that James Mawdsley will use his newly gained freedom to campaign throughout Britain raising moral awareness and pressing home the argument for the preferment of genocide charges. His is the voice of one who has paid a personal price and who was prepared to put his own life on the line. It is the voice of a man motivated by deep faith and belief in what the Pope has called “the unity of life.” It is the voice of courage and integrity. It will be a voice which will ensure we do not forget the 1,500 political prisoners who remain in Burmese jails and the hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities whose suffering continues unabated.