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Ben Rogers: Is our Foreign Secretary Miliband or Millipede?

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.

My dictionary defines a millipede as a "small crawling creature with many legs".   That describes British foreign policy, and the civil servants who implement it, perfectly. Crawling, because it inches along slower than the Number 52 bus in rush hour. And with "many legs" because Britain has all sorts of opportunities – but it doesn't use them. It is one of the few countries which holds key positions in almost all major multilateral organisations – the UN, the EU, NATO, the G8 and the Commonwealth. Yet still our diplomats sleep. And over them David Miliband presides – and on one issue remains silent.

Over the past two weeks, the largest protests in a decade have been taking place in Burma. They have spread throughout the country, beyond Rangoon. Hundreds of people have been marching in protest at fuel price hikes. I wrote about it on this site last week.

In response, the illegal military regime which rules Burma has launched a brutal crackdown. Over 150 people have been arrested, including almost all the key pro-democracy leaders. Min Ko Naing, who has already spent 16 years in jail subjected to horrific torture, is in detention again, along with Ko Ko Gyi, who has spent 15 years in prison. Both men led the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, which resulted in a massacre of thousands by the Burma Army.

Protest_in_burma Unarmed, peaceful civilian protestors have been savagely beaten up by the regime's thugs and then dragged away to the torture chambers. The regime has reportedly released hundreds of ordinary criminals from jail, and used them to create a new proxy militia, the Swan Ah Shin (Capable Powerful People). Reports claim these thugs have been used to attack civilians, sometimes with iron rods covered in plastic to cause severe internal injury without much external evidence. Some of the attacks have been filmed and smuggled out – such as this one on the female activist Su Su Nway, who was knocked unconscious and is now in hospital.

And in the face of such savagery? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office wheel out a statement from Meg Munn. Who? Yes, exactly. A junior minister. And that was 10 days ago. Not a word from the Foreign Secretary. Silence from the Prime Minister – despite the fact that he claims Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as one of his heroes in his book Courage: Eight Portraits. President Bush put out a statement. So did William Hague. Stephen Crabb, Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, has issued a press release, and subsequently written to David Miliband. Yet from Downing Street and King Charles Street a deafening silence.

And the UN? The Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon just about managed to issue a statement - but it was so equivocal it made the Liberal Democrats look principled. He "encourages all parties to avoid any provocative action". Excuse me? Who is it that is beating people up, Mr Ban? And who is it that for 45 years has been systematically raping women, using forced labour, forcibly conscripting child soldiers, destroying villages and displacing, imprisoning, torturing and killing its people? Mr Ban, you cannot be neutral on crimes against humanity and genocide.

The Secretary-General has a special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari. But the placards at a demonstration at the Foreign Office earlier this week said it all: "Has anyone seen Gambari?" He has stayed silent.


The EU managed to squeeze out a statement – belatedly. But there has been little more. There are hopes that the Burma crisis may be raised when EU Foreign Ministers meet next week – but only if we keep the pressure up. Portugal has the EU Presidency, and so a protest will be held today at the Portuguese Embassy at 11 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8PP (nearest tube: Hyde Park) from 12-1pm. Come and join us.

So what can you do? Write to David Miliband, and ask him to do the following:

  • To personally make a statement
  • To take the lead in calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council
  • To push for a UN Security Council resolution on Burma
  • To hold urgent discussions with China, India and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to urge them to use their influence with the regime
  • To take the lead in bringing Burma to the agenda of the EU Foreign Ministers next week

Write to your MP too and ask him or her to raise these issues with the Foreign Secretary.

Areyoufordemocracy_2 You can also join in a global day of fasting on Tuesday 4 September and, whatever your religious beliefs, a day of prayer on Sunday 9 September – see here for more details and to sign up. These are important gestures of solidarity which will encourage the people inside Burma.

The people of Burma have shown absolutely extraordinary courage. To defy the crackdown and continue to demonstrate, and to show such dignity and restraint, is remarkable. To continue to risk attack, arrest, imprisonment, torture and death is inspiring. Surely we – who have the privilege of freedom – owe it to these people to show them our them our support.


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