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Ben Rogers: We have a “responsibility” to “protect” in Burma

Rogers_ben_2 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 more than 20 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.  He also blogs at

Bob Dylan asked the right questions. And following the tragic destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis in Burma nine days ago, the words of his song Blowing in the Wind are eerily appropriate:

“How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?
How many years can a mountain exist before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind.”

The death toll in Burma is in the hundreds of thousands, and rising. The cyclone itself killed several thousand – but the regime is responsible for even more deaths. India provided 41 warnings to the regime before the cyclone struck, but the regime did nothing to prepare the people. During the cyclone, when 36 prisoners in Insein Jail tried to get out of their cells to avoid being crushed, they were shot dead. Then, following the devastation, the regime initially refused all offers of international aid. Subsequently, it accepted aid – but continues to refuse access to aid workers. This past weekend, as the bodies piled up, the regime shut up shop for a three day public holiday.

Once again, Burma’s brutal military regime has shown the world, just in case anyone was previously in doubt, that it is not only incompetent but inhumane in the extreme. Aid has been seized and sold on the streets. Authorities are selling roofing materials to people who have no money. Victims have been forced to rebuild public utilities by themselves, with no money or materials. There are even reports that in some places, the regime is gathering material from destroyed houses and selling it.

On Saturday, the junta went ahead with a planned referendum on a new constitution, despite the suffering, although the vote in the cyclone-affected areas has been postponed until 24 May. The referendum is a complete sham.  Even before the cyclone, millions were disenfranchised, campaigners against the constitution risked jail sentences, and there were widespread reports of intimidation, bribery and harassment of voters. Despite the regime’s efforts to rig the vote, initial reports I have received from some parts of the country indicate an overwhelming majority of votes cast against the proposed constitution – which is intended to enshrine military rule. But few have any hopes that the regime will allow a ‘no’ vote to be announced. It is most likely that the junta will announce victory, whatever the truth. Under the planned constitution, the military will retain 25% of parliamentary seats, and the President must be someone with military experience who has not married a foreigner. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, is therefore excluded.

So what should the international community do? There are three clear steps. In regard to the referendum – the world should unite and speak with one voice. If there was hesitation beforehand, the regime’s conduct in the past week surely shows that this constitution has no credibility whatsoever. To go ahead with a vote on different days in different parts of the country, when large sections of the population have been wiped out or left homeless and dying, by itself indicates the illegitimacy of the process. So the US, the EU, China, India, Russia, Japan and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) – even those countries which previously flirted with the regime – should reject the process completely. If, as we expect, the regime announces victory, such a result should be dismissed without hesitation. Pressure – through targeted financial sanctions against top members of the regime, combined with a universal arms embargo and an increased UN dialogue initiative – should be increased, to force the regime into talks with the democracy and ethnic groups.

And in regard to the much more pressing humanitarian crisis, the time has come for boldness. Enough of delay in the hope of reason. The regime has had nine days to show reason, and it has failed. If within the next 48 hours the restrictions remain, aid continues to be manipulated, and aid workers denied access, the UN should put into operation its much trumpeted principle of “Responsibility to Protect”. Aid workers should go into Burma regardless of the regime’s restrictions. If they need to be accompanied by international armed forces, to facilitate and protect the humanitarian effort, so be it. Air drops won’t work because supplies could land in flood water or paddy fields and be left to rot, or be seized by the regime. There is no guarantee the people can reach the aid if it is dropped from the sky. It must go in by land – by whatever means it takes.

Furthermore, if the regime persists in obstructing humanitarian efforts, it should be held accountable. Already the list of crimes against humanity committed by this brutal regime is long – the widespread and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, torture, killings, the use of human minesweepers, the forcible conscription of child soldiers and the destruction of more than 3,200 villages in eastern Burma alone since 1996. Add to this catalogue of horrors the regime’s deliberate denial of aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargus. It is not just the failure to issue visas to international aid workers. It is not simply neglect. There are reports that Burmese people attempting to distribute aid have been attacked by the regime’s militia, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA) and Swan Ah Shin. Under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, one of the categories of crimes against humanity, in addition to murder, rape and torture, is “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health”. The deliberate diversion, manipulation and denial of aid must surely count as an “inhumane act” – and so the Security Council should refer a case against the Generals to the International Criminal Court.

The UN has an opportunity to show that “Responsibility to Protect”, and mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court, mean something. If the UN, through collective lethargy or as a result of China’s continued veto, is unable or unwilling to act, individual countries should unite to form a coalition. It does not have to be military intervention Iraq-style. The purpose does not have to be regime change. It would simply be a humanitarian intervention to bring emergency assistance to hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise be wiped out by starvation and disease. But if international actors have the courage to do this, it could indeed mark the end of this despicable regime – and that cannot come a moment too soon. A failure to act means we will be asking Bob Dylan’s questions for years to come.

Go to WebCameron for the Tory leader's thoughts on the crisis in Burma.


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