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Ben Rogers: Empower the "little people" to act while the dinosaurs snore...

Benedict Rogers is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission and works with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an international human rights organisation. He is the author of "A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People" and was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in 2005.

I am angry. I am angry at a murderous regime which is carrying out crimes against humanity and attempted genocide with impunity. And I am angry that the world still remains largely silent and inactive.

Protest Let me qualify that last sentence. When I say “the world”, what I mean really is the world’s governments, the United Nations, the European Union and – and this is perhaps the worst part – major relief organisations. Ordinary people – once they become aware of the situation – have responded on the whole with extraordinary generosity. Earlier this week, I took part in a demonstration at the Burmese Embassy in London – and was joined by twenty or so ordinary concerned citizens. My sister, a violinist, played the theme tune of Schindler’s List, which she dedicated to the Karen. People have written letters and given money. It is the people with power who should be ashamed of themselves.

In Burma today, a holocaust is unfolding before our eyes. In recent weeks, in Karen State, over 15,500 civilians have been displaced, according to the Free Burma Rangers. The numbers have been rising almost daily. Villages have been torched, rice barns destroyed and the Burma Army has laid landmines around abandoned villages to stop people returning from their homes. Civilians have been shot at point-blank range. People have been beheaded and mutilated. A nine year-old girl was shot, and her father and grandmother killed. The Burma Army is hunting these people down like animals. And what have these civilians done to deserve this? Nothing, except desire to live in freedom, peace and dignity.

According to the Karen Human Rights Group, the crisis looks set to escalate still further. At least 27 Burma Army battalions are now poised to destroy hundreds of villages in Papun District, which would, they say, “doubtless lead to the forced displacement of tens of thousands more.” These are, they report, “attacks against undefended villages with the objective of flushing villagers out of the hills to bring them under direct military control so they can be used to support the Burma Army with food and labour.”

This week, the Karen crisis has finally gained some media coverage. The Times had a full page on May 15. The BBC news featured it at ten o’clock last night. But still more coverage is needed.

Yet still the world sleeps. The crisis has been developing for several weeks now, but only this week did a group of UN Special Rapporteurs issue a statement condemning the atrocities. Kofi Annan has said nothing. Does he remember Rwanda? Does he recall his promise: “Never again”? Well, it’s going to be “never again” all over again if he does not act now. Burma should be brought to the UN Security Council immediately, a resolution passed, and the powers now available in the recent Resolution 1674 obliging the international community to act to protect civilians suffering violations in armed conflict should be exercised.

The EU Presidency issued a pathetic statement, belatedly. But they played right into the Burmese junta’s hands. The illegal regime which terrorises Burma justifies its acts of genocide as simply counter-insurgency. The EU, in turn, said it was “very concerned” about the military’s “campaign against the Karen National Union”. But it is not a campaign just against the KNU, the Karens’ armed resistance group. It is unarmed women and children who are on the run in the jungle. The EU also called upon the Burmese regime to cease its “dislocations” of civilians. What kind of Euro-crat speak is that? I think the civilians feel a bit more than just “dislocated”. It makes it sound like they are moving house.

The British Government has said next to nothing, and the Department for International Development (DFID) still refuses to provide humanitarian aid to the Internally Displaced People. Oh, they will boast of the £8 million it spends in Burma. They will claim credit for the £1.8 million they give to refugees on the Thai-Burmese border. They will talk about the importance of the HIV/AIDS work that forms the majority of DFID’s aid programme. And that is clever, because who can argue with HIV/AIDS? But the truth is, in terms of scale of suffering, the HIV/AIDS crisis in Burma and DFID’s effort to combat it is dwarfed by the humanitarian emergency affecting thousands in eastern Burma – and DFID’s lethargic response. DFID says they want aid to go to the most vulnerable people. Who are more vulnerable than a total of over one million people on the run, without food, medicine or shelter?

DFID will then claim that such aid just cannot be monitored. Well, I know the groups that deliver aid in the conflict zones of eastern Burma. Backpack medical teams and small relief groups. I have travelled with some of them. Their accountability is better than most governments. They produce financial reports recording every single penny spent. Their video, photographic and testimonial evidence is outstanding. And four other Governments already provide some funding to them. So DFID has no excuse. A new British Ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, has just been appointed, so we wait to see whether he can move British policy forward – but until then thousands remain unfed, unsheltered, untreated and unheard.

But in a way, the sleepiness and bureaucracy of the UN, the EU and DFID is not surprising, though it is not excusable. Truly shocking, however, is the response I have received from three major relief organisations, who I approached to ask them to help.

At this stage I won’t name and shame them. I am still trying to persuade them to wake up. But readers would be horrified if they knew. One major household name in the aid charity business responded with these words: “I can say that the main concern is that any response we make does not in any way compromise [our] … existing relationship with the [Burmese] government.” Remember, it is that “government”, if you can call it that, which is carrying out a form of genocide. Another major relief charity replied saying: “I am aware of [our] internal systems and processes. They do not allow for a grant to be sent to any organisation or individual who does not have a prior partner agreement with us. Developing a partner agreement is a lengthy process and not the ideal route to take for a one off grant.” Explain that to someone in the jungle with no food, medicine or shelter. A third said: “I know a higher level response from [us] could be argued, but at this time we have determined that we can only commit to our advocacy efforts.”

And so instead it is left to small organizations and individuals to respond. The group I work for, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, is primarily an advocacy organization. Aid is not our remit. But when those whose remit it is fail to act, we believe we have an obligation to do what we can. So, from our existing limited funds and from donations from supporters specifically for this crisis, we have sent a few thousand pounds. Another organization of which I am a trustee, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), which is very small, also sent a few thousand pounds. And my mother, bless her, has been turning to friends in our small town in Dorset and has raised several thousand pounds. A friend of mine summed it all up beautifully when she said: “Throughout history, the tragedy has always been the slow response of those in power, whether they be government or large organizations. It is always the little people who move quickly, giving all they have”. Reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”.

As the Conservative Party considers foreign policy and international development, it would do well to learn from the current Government’s record. It should put the promotion of democracy at the heart of foreign and aid policy where this Government has failed to. And it should develop greater flexibility for channeling aid money. I have never been in favour of government-to-government aid. I have always been for the voluntary sector. But within the voluntary sector, we need to explore how we can help the “little people” who are doing courageous and life-saving work – when the dinosaurs are not even limbering up.


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