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Benedict Rogers: A year on from the Saffron Revolution, the Burmese junta’s credentials must be challenged

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 23 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.

A year ago today, Burma’s military regime unleashed a brutal assault on peaceful pro-democracy protests. In full view of the world’s cameras, monks and Burmese civilians were beaten, shot, arrested, tortured and killed in the suppression of the largest movement for freedom in Burma since 1988. A Japanese photographer was killed. The ‘Saffron Revolution’ woke the conscience of the world. But a year on, has the world gone back to sleep?

Since last September, I have met some of the monks who fled to Burma’s borders with Thailand and Bangladesh. Some were beaten, but escaped before being arrested. One, in hiding on the Bangladesh-Burma border, recalled seeing detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi emerge from her home as the demonstrators marched past on 22 September. “Her expression showed she would never give up. The regime can arrest her physically, but they can never arrest her spirit or her mind,” he said. Another said to me quietly: “I would like to ask the international community to please help the people of Burma achieve democracy.”

Since September 2007, Burma has descended even further into crisis. Cyclone Nargis struck the country in May, and over 140,000 were killed. At least 2.5 million were left homeless. The regime could have assisted, before and after the disaster, but it chose not to. It ignored more than 40 warnings of the impending cyclone, giving the people no time to prepare. In the immediate aftermath, the regime first rejected, then restricted international aid efforts, and diverted much of the aid for its own use.

Over 2,100 political prisoners are in jail in Burma today, almost double the number a year ago. Earlier this week, the regime released some prisoners, including the well-known journalist U Win Tin, who is 78 and has been in prison for over 19 years. But this is window-dressing. Token releases occur every year, for publicity purposes. Releasing prisoners relieves the stress on Burma’s overcrowded jails. Some of those freed should have been released years ago, their sentences having expired. And thousands remain behind bars. While it is of course very welcome that U Win Tin is free, why are 73 year-old Sao Hso Ten, jailed for 106 years, and 65 year-old Hkun Htun Oo, jailed for 93 years, not? Many political prisoners have been denied medical treatment despite serious health problems.  And in the last month the regime has arrested at least 65 people, including the prominent activist Nilar Thein. At least 196 Buddhist monks remain in jail, and Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest.

The junta’s offensives against Burma’s ethnic groups continue too. The Burma Army has deployed 83 new battalions in Karen State within the past year, bringing its total number to 187. These troops are not there to fight some large army – they are mobilised to attack Karen civilians, using rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, torture and the destruction of villages, crops, livestock and the means of survival. The soldiers shoot women and children at point-blank range as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In western Burma, a famine is unfolding due to a plague of rats. At least 200 villages and a population of 100,000 is affected, but the regime not only fails to help, but is actively preventing aid from reaching the suffering people.

Burma’s junta held elections in 1990, which were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD won 82% of the parliamentary seats. Eighteen years on, the military remains in power, and this year it held another ballot, a referendum on a new constitution. Determined not to repeat its defeat of 1990, the regime blatantly rigged the polls, claiming over 92% voted for the new constitution, which enshrines military rule and bans Aung San Suu Kyi from taking office. The examples of ballot rigging, harassment and intimidation, from all parts of Burma, are widespread. The referendum was a sham. Yet neither the EU nor the UN have expressed a view. They should reject the result categorically, and end their silence.

A year on, it is time to revive our consciences. New action is required. A UN Security Council arms embargo should be imposed. Specific benchmarks for progress, starting with the release of all political prisoners, should be spelled out, with deadlines. The Generals should be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. And, the credentials of the junta at the UN should be revoked.

An effort is now underway to challenge the regime's UN credentials. This initiative deserves our full support. How can the international community continue to accept the military regime as Burma’s representative? It has shown itself to be illegitimate, immoral, inhumane and incompetent. Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the crackdown a year ago as “abhorrent and unacceptable”. And there are legitimate representatives, elected in 1990, who would be more than qualified to take Burma’s seat in the UN.

Ban Ki-moon has referred the credentials challenge to the new UN Credentials Committee, made up of nine countries. A straight vote is all that is needed – no vetoes. If a majority reject the junta, the question can go to the General Assembly. There, the United Kingdom should strongly support the challenge – and it should make its support known to the committee now.

Upon his release this week, U Win Tin declared: “I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country.” We must do the same. You can start, by joining the new Change for Burma! campaign online now.


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