Universe Column for July 6th 2003
By David Alton
The Burmese military’s decision to re-arrest Aung San Suu Kyi has thrown back into sharp relief the despicable policies of the Burmese military junta. Every bit as evil as the brutal junta that governed Iraq the world needs to be much clearer about how it is going to deal with the systematic atrocities and the depredations in Burma.
In particular, relatively little interest has been shown in the genocide perpetrated by the Burmese military – and which western governments are still reluctant to name as such.
I have personally met the victims of terrible atrocities that include summary executions, rape, forced relocations, destruction of villages, food stores and crops and forced labour. Over 650,000 Karen, Karenni and Shan have been internally displaced. Over 200,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Thailand. Many displaced people are hiding in the jungle with little or no food or medicine and they are usually shot on sight by Burmese troops. I can think of no other country where so many displaced people are being subjected to a shoot on sight policy, yet the British government and the international community continue to pay relatively little attention to the desperate plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan.
The British government and European Union have measured progress in Burma by mainly focusing on whatever improvements have taken place regarding political developments and the release of political prisoners. While these issues are very important, it remains a matter of grave concern that the British government is not treating the desperate plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan people as being just as important.
In the Foreign Office’s Human Rights Annual Report 2002, the last 2 lines of their section on Burma states that “We shall continue to respond proportionately to political developments in Burma. But should progress stall or fail, our policy will again harden.” There is no reference to the possibility of hardening British policy on Burma due to the continuing SPDC atrocities against the Karen, Karenni and Shan. According to this statement, the sole determinant of whether Britain and the EU’s policy towards Burma will harden or soften is whether any progress is made on the political front, with no regard being given to those ethnic groups facing systematic atrocities.
On behalf of the human rights group, the Jubilee Campaign, I have twice visited the Karen people along the Thai-Burma border. For several years now the Jubilee Campaign and I have investigated the facts of the situation and researched the international laws relating to genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and we are absolutely convinced that the Karen, Karenni and Shan are facing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes at the hands of the Burmese military. Burma’s regime is not just anti-democratic, it is also a criminal regime, who have committed serious crimes under international law.
Even if the British government refuses to accept that Genocide is taking place as it has done in the past, it should be obvious to even the most casual observers that War Crimes are being inflicted on the Karen, Karenni and Shan and that in itself should be enough to justify the setting up of an International Criminal Tribunal by the U.N Security Council to try Burma’s military regime.
With the recent crackdown against the National League for Democracy and the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Italian Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Margherita Boniver, has said that the European Union will be considering in detail the possibility of submitting this issue to the U.N Security Council. Italy has taken over the Presidency of the European Union this month. Good for the Italians.
The British government should ensure that any such considerations include submitting to the U.N Security Council the systematic atrocities against the Karen, Karenni and Shan ethnic minorities in Burma. While the plight of political prisoners in Burma is grave, the situation of the Karen, Karenni and Shan is even worse and directly affects a far larger number of people.
Britain should not wait for others to act. It should urgently raise the plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan at the U.N Security Council and lobby at the Council for a global arms and investment embargo against Burma. The government should also ban all new investment by British companies in Burma, as has been done in the U.S. and call on the Security Council to set up an International Criminal Tribunal to try the Burmese regime for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. And they should answer the question I put to them in Parliament a few days ago: If what is happening in Burma is not genocide, what has to happen for them to decide that it is?