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Ben Rogers: A tribute to Burma's brave people

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He has visited Burma and its border areas 18 times, and is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People (Monarch, 2004). He was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election.

On 8 August, 1988 thousands of unarmed, peaceful Burmese civilians were slaughtered by the Burma Army – for demonstrating for democracy. Today, we pay tribute to their courage and sacrifice, we remember their loved ones and those who survived the massacre, and we join with the Burmese people in reminding the world that the suffering continues. People will gather in Berkely Square, London at 12.30 today to march to the Burmese Embassy in Charles Street (nearest tube: Green Park), where they will demonstrate in memory of the “8888” massacre.

“8888”, as it has become known, was a day of utmost brutality. It is estimated that more than 3,000 students and pro-democracy protestors were shot dead. But that whole year was full of bloodshed. Accurate figures are impossible to find, but experts claim over 10,000 were killed in 1988. The protests were sparked by the overnight decision by Burma’s then dictator, General Ne Win, to demonetise much of the Burmese currency on the advice of his personal astrologers. They told him his lucky number was nine, and so he replaced bank notes with denominations that were divisible by nine, or contained the digit nine.  Within hours people lost life savings. One activist, Ko Aung, told me: “We could not even afford one box of cigarettes”. Popular anger grew. On 12 March, 1988 demonstrations were sparked after a brawl in the Sanda Win teashop, named after Ne Win’s daughter. Students argued with the son of a senior general over what music to play. The brawl escalated, and police shot dead two of the students. Street protests erupted in response.

Ne Win did not mince his words. “When soldiers shoot, they don’t shoot into the air – they shoot straight,” he said on radio, an echo of his warning in 1962, when he took power in a coup and said “monks and students need to be hit hard”. He meant it. Tanks were sent in to crush the demonstrators, in scenes foreshadowing China’s Tiananmen Square massacre the following year. On 16 March 1988, students were rounded up and drowned in Inya Lake. Universities were shut. At least 41 people suffocated to death in a prison van, driven around for two hours before being brought, dead, to Insein Prison.

Into this carnage walked Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of Burma’s founding father, Aung San, she returned to Burma from Oxford, where she had married Michael Aris, to nurse her dying mother. She became the country’s hope, a figure of inspiring grace, dignity, intellect, compassion and fierce courage. Later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she led her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in an overwhelming victory in the elections held two years after the 1988 massacres. The NLD won over 80% of the parliamentary seats. The regime, however, rejected the results, imprisoned the victors and intensified its grip on power. Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest today, cut off from the rest of the world and her people.

As we remember the 88 massacres today, let us also remember that this is not history. Burma continues to be ruled by one of the world’s most brutal regimes. It is an illegal regime, with no mandate to rule. Indeed, in 1990 the people gave the NLD a clear mandate. Yet over 1,200 political prisoners remain in jail.

Jail conditions are horrific, with gruesome forms of torture. Just read Karen Connelly’s novel, The Lizard Cage, for a description. Or listen to the story of someone like Ko Aung, now in London, a founding member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions.

Ko Aung was arrested in 1988. His ordeal began in a cell with 140 others, where he was beaten and tortured. He was interrogated for three days and denied sleep. Tied to a chair, he was beaten with a rubber rod. His torturers burned his chest with cigarettes. He was tied to the ceiling and spun round, a form of torture known as the “helicopter”. He was forced to crouch over an imaginary motorbike for hours. Interrogators rubbed a bamboo cane up and down his shins until the skin came off.

Worst of all, Ko Aung was led blindfolded with an iron chain around him down a path, and forced to climb into a ditch, 20 feet deep and 8 feet wide. In the ditch was a decomposing corpse. He was kept there for six days. Then he was taken into a room with cages of wild, screaming birds which, with their sharp beaks, pecked frenziedly at his body. “For a whole night, I had to undergo this unbearable torture. My skin was shredded by the pecks of the birds.” As if this was not enough, he was taken another night, blindfolded, into a pond of human waste, full of maggots.

Another prisoner I know was kept in a dog kennel and forced to walk around on all fours and bark for his food. Yet another, Aung Din, who works for the US Campaign for Burma now, was jailed for four years. “When I forgot to stand to attention, I was forced to crawl on sharp, pointed stones for 100 yards while the prison guards beat me with sticks and belts,” he recalls. “Many of my fellow prisoners were tortured even more. They were tortured for dropping a cup of water. They were tortured for teaching English. They were tortured for anything. Often, when I tried to sleep, I could hear the screams of those being tortured. If there is a hell on earth, it must be Burma’s Insein Prison where I was jailed.”

The torture continues to this day. And not only in Burma’s prisons. In eastern, northern and western parts of the country, the non-Burman ethnic groups face perhaps the worst forms of persecution. In eastern Burma, the Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan have faced military offensives for decades. Since 1996, over 3,000 villages have been destroyed by the Burma Army. Over a million people are internally displaced. Over 150,000 are refugees in camps in Thailand. The Burma Army rapes women, forcibly recruits child soldiers, and uses people for forced labour. Sometimes, civilians are taken to be human minesweepers – to walk ahead of the military, clearing landmines but losing their limbs, and often their lives, in the process. Last year alone, over 86,000 civilians in eastern Burma were forcibly displaced – more than 27,000 in Karen State. And then in northern and western Burma, the Chin, Kachin, Arakan and Rohingya people are suffering too. Forced labour, rape, land confiscation and religious persecution are widespread. I met a man who visits prison camps in Chin State, and he told me that prisoners are yoked like oxen and forced to plough the fields. It is a completely barbarous regime.

Not only is it brutal, even genocidal, it is also a regime with one of the world’s worst records of public expenditure on health and education. It spends between 40 and 50 per cent of its budget on the military, despite having no external enemies. In contrast, it spends 60p per person per year on health and education combined.

Last month, the House of Commons International Development Committee published a report. Its critique of the British Government’s lacklustre response to the crisis in Burma was damning; its recommendations robust. It called on the Department for International Development (DFID) to quadruple aid to Burma by 2013, while ensuring that such aid is not delivered through the regime. Burma receives a fraction of the aid other similar countries such as Zimbabwe receive, and a tiny amount compared to neighbours such as Vietnam and Cambodia. DFID’s £8 million budget for Burma is paltry – and the Committee has said so. The Committee has also called for DFID to provide funds for cross-border initiatives to deliver aid to the internally displaced people – the only way of reaching many of the most vulnerable. And it recommends funding indigenous human rights, civil society and pro-democracy projects based on Burma’s borders. Such organisations – including women’s groups and the exiled trade union movement – do invaluable work gathering and documenting evidence, producing reports for the outside world, and providing human rights education for their people.

The day after the report was released, the Independent ran a brilliant article by John Bercow MP on its front page, with the headline “A Plight We Can No Longer Ignore” It posed the question: “The people of Burma endure human rights abuses on an unimaginable scale. Rape, torture and forced labour are facts of their lives. So why does the world refuse to act?”

Britain owes the people of Burma a great debt. We colonised Burma. Many people from Burma fought loyally with us against the Japanese in the Second World War. They now feel abandoned and betrayed. It is not too late to make amends. The best way the British Government can pay tribute to the courage of the people of Burma – those who were our allies, and those who gave their lives in 1988 – is to provide meaningful humanitarian and political support.

If readers want to do their part, there are three immediate things they can do. Firstly, join the protest at the Burmese Embassy today. Secondly, join a campaign organisation – the Burma Campaign UK or Christian Solidarity Worldwide, for example. And thirdly, write to Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development, to urge him to implement the House of Commons International Development Committee’s recommendations. As John Bercow said in The Independent:

“The blunt truth is that we are failing the people of Burma. Co-ordination is abysmal, communication with border groups and exile organisations is pitiful and the policy response to the continuing humanitarian crisis is frankly dysfunctional. Douglas Alexander is nobody's fool and he clearly relishes his new job. I urge him to see the weakness of current policy and to heed the International Development Select Committee's advice to change it decisively for the benefit of millions of people in Burma who have suffered too much for too long with too little done to alleviate their plight.”


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