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Ben Rogers: Mrs Beckett - prove us wrong

Ben_rogers 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"  (Monarch, 2004) and was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in 2005.

Their looks said it all. When the news flashed up on my screen that Margaret Beckett was Foreign Secretary, I told my colleagues. One by one heads popped up, a bemused look on each face. One, a solid Labour voter, thought it was a joke. “No, come on, you are joking. Who is really Jack Straw’s replacement?” Margaret Beckett, I assured her. The conversation went in circles like this several times until she realised I was not joking. Others were equally astonished. A friend from another human rights organisation phoned me from his holiday in Cyprus to find out the news. He too thought I was joking. A friend in Washington DC called me too. “Who is Margaret Beckett and why has she been made foreign secretary?” he asked. Britain’s first female foreign secretary has a clear credibility problem. But she has an opportunity to prove us all wrong.

When she looks at her ‘to do’ list – Iran, Iraq, China, Russia, Afghanistan, the United States, the EU, India – she may think she already has enough on her plate. But if she wants to win respect for courage, creativity and integrity, there is another, forgotten but important item she could add to her list: Burma.

For too long British Foreign Secretaries have failed the long-suffering people of Burma. Former Burmese political prisoners have told me that they do not see Britain as being on their side. One asked me why it took the UK over two months to decide whether or not to support bringing Burma to the UN Security Council for the first time, on the recommendation of a report commissioned by former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu when it took the US just one day. Another wondered why the British Council in Rangoon charges $20 a year for access to a library consisting of books on 19th century flora and fauna, when the American Centre charges $2 a year, for a library packed with books on democracy and human rights. Margaret Beckett now has an opportunity to change all that.  

Burma is ruled by one of the world’s most brutal regimes. An illegal junta which took power in a coup and ignored the will of the people in the 1990 elections, it has locked up Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi  - and almost assassinated her three years ago.

Margaret_beckett The regime is guilty of the widespread, systematic use of rape against ethnic minority women (see the Shan women and Karen women websites). Those two issues alone – the detention of a female icon and rape – should appeal to the feminist in Mrs. Beckett.

Over 1,100 political prisoners are in jail in Burma today. Khun Htun Oo, for example, is serving a 93-year sentence for pro-democracy activities. Nine political prisoners have died in jail in the past year. Torture is widespread.

Since 1996, over 2,800 villages in eastern Burma alone have been destroyed. Over a million people are displaced, on the run, hiding in the jungle, without food, medicine or shelter. Over 155,000 are refugees in camps in Thailand, and thousands more in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and beyond. Over 70,000 children have been forcibly conscripted into the Burma Army, the highest number of child soldiers in the world. 

But it is the current crisis in Karen State that should particularly command Mrs Beckett’s attention. What crisis, you may ask? One of the world’s most under-reported human tragedies developing right now. In recent weeks, in the worst offensive against the Karen by the Burma Army since 1997, over 13,000 people have been displaced in one district alone. Civilians have been shot at point-blank range. Saw Po De, a 40 year-old man, was beheaded. The body of another man was found severely mutilated, his nose cut off and an eye gouged out. Nine year-old Naw Eh Ywa Paw was shot, after her father and grandmother were killed. The Free Burma Rangers, a relief team which has been assisting those on the run in the jungles, say there is an “immediate” need for rice and medicine. A worldwide day of protest has been called for May 16 – a demonstration will be held outside the Burmese Embassy in London  at 19a Charles Street from 12.30-2pm that day. 

There are four things Mrs. Beckett could do immediately. First, she could signal her intention to lead an effort to bring the crisis in Burma to the UN Security Council agenda next month. This has been called for by many around the world – from a group of ASEAN Parliamentarians to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Church World Service and Refugees International. Denmark has the Presidency in June, so she could lobby her Danish counter-part to be pro-active in bringing Burma forward for discussion. She could talk to China and Russia, to persuade them not to use their veto. The proposal in the Havel-Tutu report is for a moderate resolution – that would require the SPDC to enter into tripartite dialogue with the democracy and ethnic groups, release all political prisoners, and open up the country to humanitarian aid and human rights organisations. After numerous General Assembly and Human Rights Commission resolutions on Burma, it is time for a legally binding and enforceable resolution – which only the Security Council can pass. So far, Kofi Annan and the UN Secretariat have not said a word about the current crisis. Just as he and others failed to deal with Rwanda before it was too late, so he has remained silent on the situation in eastern Burma. Mrs. Beckett could help change that.

Second, she could look at how the UK can go above and beyond the current pathetic EU Common Position on Burma. While civilians were being slaughtered last week, the EU Common Position was renewed – as it is, not strengthened at all.

The EU Common Position’s key features are:

  • An arms embargo and a ban on non-humanitarian aid – welcome, but insignificant given that China and Russia provide most of the regime’s arms.
  • A visa ban – known as a “shopping ban” because of the exemptions for international summits. The Generals tend to shop in Singapore, rather than Paris.
  • An asset freeze – which has frozen the grand total of £4,000, across all 25 EU member states.
  • A ban on investment by EU companies in named State-owned enterprises – at first glance, a hint of muscle by the EU, but on closer investigation another typical fudge.  Under Burmese law foreign companies cannot invest in State-owned enterprises – so the EU has banned something that cannot be done anyway. And on the list of prohibited companies are a pineapple juice factory and a tailor shop – but not the oil, gas, timber or gem sectors. The Generals are propped up by TOTAL oil, not by tropical fruit juice.

It is time then for the UK to introduce its own investment ban, and close the loophole whereby British-dependent territories – Bermuda and the Virgin Islands – are used by foreign companies to invest in Burma. The legislation has been drafted. It has the support of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, over 100 Labour MPs and even Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists. It should win Mrs. Beckett’s backing.

Third, there is increasing evidence that war crimes, crimes against humanity and attempted genocide are being perpetrated in Burma.  The UK could join with other countries in creating a UN Commission of Inquiry into these crimes, or referring a case to the International Court of Justice.  

And fourth, the UK could support democracy in Burma. By that I mean, provide funding to democracy-building projects. Currently, the UK provides £120,000 to a survey of wild bats in Burma, but not a penny to the brave indigenous Burmese human rights documentation, dissemination and education groups (such as the KHRG and CHRO). We should be funding them, as well as broadcasters such as the Democratic Voice of Burma, and national reconciliation projects.

Two weeks ago, the Conservative Human Rights Commission held its first hearing, on Burma. The hearing was followed by William Hague’s speech putting human rights at the heart of foreign policy, and a call from Shan activist Charm Tong to us: “Please don’t give up on democracy and human rights”. Charm Tong met David Cameron the previous day, and Jack Straw the day after the hearing. Jack Straw promised to support the effort to bring Burma to the UN Security Council. Mrs Beckett should fulfil that promise she has inherited – and go further.

I have travelled in the conflict zones of eastern Burma many times, and to the western borders too. I will never forget walking around a village of internally displaced people in Karen State, rife with malnutrition, malaria and preventable disease, and seeing hanging on the wall of a bamboo hut a banner with the question: “Are you for democracy or dictatorship?” That is a question Mrs. Beckett must answer. Ringing in my ears are the words of a 15 year-old Shan boy who had seen his parents killed and his village burned, and had been taken for forced labour. As he looked into my eyes, he said: “Please, tell the world to put pressure on the regime to stop killing its people. Tell the world not to forget us.” That is what I have been doing – but the world has not been listening. Mrs Beckett, your time to change that has come.

Related articles: GoldList: Ben Rogers, recent Times letter and Times article on Burma, Charm Tong Jack Straw and senior Conservatives, Events report on Hague's speech at the Conservative hearing on Burma, buy "A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People".


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