Toward Democracy, Human Rights and Federalism

Friday, February 3, 2012

Burmese people need outside help to achieve freedom

Tuesday, May 26 2009, 12:53 PM EDT

Commentary by Dr Thaung Htun appeared in the "Opinion" section of The Nation, Bangkok, Thailand, on 26 May 2009

CASE 47/2009 sounds mundane enough. But, as this case unfolds, the future of a nation is in the balance. The number is the file reference of Aung San Suu Kyi's trial in Insein Prison in Rangoon, which started on May 18. The entire world knows the charges are trumped up and that the military regime is simply seeking to find a neat means of locking up the democracy leader again. Yet, inexplicably, we watch as the trial goes on. Here is a moment when the international community must pause and consider the history that is unfurling around it. Now is the time for world governments and organizations to act and to end the 47-year-long military dictatorship in Burma.

The facts are that Aung San Suu Kyi's period of house detention was due to come to an end on May 27. This period of incarceration should be deemed illegal not only in relation to international law, but in contravention of Burma's own legal statutes and by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. So, finding a "legal" means of locking up Aung San Suu Kyi again, and to deny her any connection with elections planned in 2010, became an imperative for the junta.

It is also a sign that the Burmese military is panicking as international pressure mounts for Aung San Suu Kyi's release. This trial is a rash and hurried lurch by a jittery regime to temper the waves of outcry over its hardline approach.

International inaction might be understandable, but not perhaps justified, if we were talking about a tiny nation on the margins of regional and global relations. Burma is none of these things. With a population of some 50 million, it is potentially one of Asia's richest and most go-ahead countries. Traditionally high literacy rates and high rates of English-language competency add to its potential. Burma is also positioned in a strategically vital area, nestled between India and China.

Quite apart from the moral imperative, there is a significant strategic motivation to secure democracy in Burma. The possibility of "failed state" status -- a categorization that may already apply - for such a strategically and economically important nation should focus even the mind of the most Realpolitik-enamored policy wonk. The regional implications alone are significant.

The international community must approach this current crisis with both short-term and longer-term agendas in mind.

First, and most pressingly, the immediate and unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi, along with the remaining 2,000-plus political prisoners in Burma, must be secured.

The best means of doing this will likely be through an immediate visit to Burma by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and action to which he has already committed. Intervening in this way would be a powerful symbol, and few share his ability to directly defuse the current tensions and to facilitate a multi-party dialogue to lead towards a process of national reconciliation of all relevant parties.

This action would be best empowered through an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council. Here, a presidential statement can mobilize the Secretary-General's Office and can also discuss initiatives for a medium-term international response to the current situation and beyond.

Once the immediate crisis has been resolved, the international community will then have to consider the future of Burma.

The National League for Democracy, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has been clear that it aims for reconciliation not retribution. Recently, the NLD produced the Shwegondaing Declaration, which confirmed the party's belief in ensuring that the military is part of the process of national rebuilding.

No democracy can take root amid the turmoil of revenge and power grabs. A long-term solution requires a mature view and, driven by the non-violent and conciliatory approach of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, Burma's democracy movement is keenly aware of its responsibilities.

A viable plan of action has already been devised by the NLD, the wider democracy movement, ethnic parties and the government in exile.

The US has recently extended targeted sanctions on Burma, yet has also raised the possibility of a softly-softly approach. How this might be played out remains the purview of Washington, but we would stress that the time is now and that our plan offers a sustainable means of bringing a lasting democracy to Burma.

Burma's critical moment appears to have arrived and it needs the ability to act and to move quickly, as well as a cool hand amid the chaos to guide the process to a longer-term conclusion. We beseech the international community to seize this moment, to help our country recover and to ensure Aung San Suu Kyi one day is allowed to be free among the people for whom she has sacrificed so much.


Dr Thaung Htun is the UN representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma -- the government in exile.

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