The Dangerous Games Which the Burmese Generals Like to Play

Friday, 21 March 2008 19:00 Steve Crawshaw Editorial Dept - Asia

Ibrahim GambariNone of this should have been a surprise. The Burmese generals sent Ibrahim Gambari away empty-handed. The military rulers treated Gambari, special envoy to Burma and under secretary general of the UN, with unconcealed contempt.

Gambari - who is due to report back to the security council in the next few days - was not allowed to meet General Than Shwe or other senior leaders when he visited Burma this month. He met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in a (presumably bugged) government guest house.

But the regime refused to make any of the concessions that Gambari asked for, including international observers and technical support for the May referendum on the generals' draft constitution aimed at cementing their hold on power. Instead, they described the ultra-cautious Gambari as biased".

The question now is: will the world finally wake up to the dangerous games which the Burmese generals like to play? Right now, there is depressingly little sign of that.

For a few brief moments, while gunfire echoed around Rangoon last September, world leaders sat up and took notice - just as the lethal violence in Lhasa in recent days has forced politicians partly to acknowledge the human rights nightmare of Tibet for the first time in many years. In response to the Burmese crackdown, there was outspoken criticism of a government which was (again) murdering its citizens on its streets. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, declared his abhorrence, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed "revulsion", and even the UN security council, after much grinding of diplomatic teeth, agreed to "strongly deplore" the killing.

Once the immediate violence was off the television screens, however, things went back to business as usual. Than Shwe and his fellow generals made a few symbolic concessions - including perfunctory meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and allowing Gambari into the country. Key governments, such as China and India, began to insist that things were now on the right track, and that further pressure would be inappropriate. Little has happened since, as Burma quickly faded from the international agenda.

Burma is a country which yearns for things to be different. In the past 30 years, I have lived and worked in many countries where the secret police hold sway. Never, however, have I seen the combined fear and astonishing defiance that one encounters in Burma. The mass protests led by monks last year gave voice to that defiance. The courage of ordinary Burmese people deserves support and pressure on the regime - including, for example, targeted measures such as banking sanctions and travel bans on the leadership.

Now Burma's ruling generals are hoping to divert attention by laying out an alleged roadmap to democracy, including the announcement of a referendum on a draft constitution in May followed by elections in 2010. But what meaning can a referendum have when public debate is prohibited and a casual word of criticism can land you a long prison sentence?

How can the will of the people be known when much of the political opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic, Nobel prize-winning leader of the National League for Democracy, is in prison or under house arrest? How can a vote be held on a constitution for all of Burma's people when members of many ethnic groups are excluded from the process? How can a vote take place without an electoral roll, a census, or an independent election commission?

The generals also want to make people forget how little regard they have for human life. Burma remains among the worst violators of the international prohibition against child soldiers. In the border areas where armed conflict with ethnic groups continues, the army commits widespread summary executions and rapes and uses forced labour.

Outside armed conflict areas, the situation also remains bleak. An unknown number remain in detention following the brutal suppression of last year's pro-democracy protests. Torture is widespread. Last month two more journalists were arrested and held without charge for collecting information about the international response to last year's crackdown. The sad irony is that the international response of late has been: not much.

The Beijing Olympics begin on August 8 2008, 20 years to the day after mass demonstrations in Burma led to the slaughter of thousands. China has enormous commercial and political clout in Burma, but is determined not to use that influence to benefit the Burmese people. China helped Gambari gain a visa to get back into Burma, but, as we saw again in recent days, that tiny step changes little or nothing on the ground.

China seems determined to allow the generals a free pass, even though the underlying instability caused by the continuing repression does China little good. Anti-Chinese sentiment inside Burma is running high, partly because of a perception that China is turning a blind eye to the generals' crimes.

South Africa, a current security council member, lards its speeches on Burma with implausible words like "optimistic", "progress", "encouraging" and "significant impact." Meanwhile, the 14-government "group of friends", which Ban Ki-moon set up, has met just twice to "review developments" to little obvious effect.

The way forward is not a sham referendum, but a substantive dialogue with the political opposition and ethnic groups, the release of an estimated 1,800 political prisoners, a free press, and room for ordinary people to meet and talk freely. The population needs an end to fear and violence.

Burma stands at a turning point: 2008 could be the year of change for the better. But that will not happen unless powerful players - at the security council and in the region - make clear that the time for waiting is over. After decades of repressive rule, the Burmese people deserve no less.

Related Material:

Burma: Heed UN Advisor on Constitutional Reform

Crackdown: Repression of the 2007 Popular Protests in Burma

Steve Crawshaw - United Nations Advocacy Director
Article Courtesy of Human Rights Watch
Image Courtesy of CNN

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