Something important happened last month in Kuala Lumpur. Finally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations took a stand for human rights. For the first time, at its annual meeting, ASEAN expressed concerns over Burma’s lack of democratic reform and called for the release of political prisoners.
Pascal Khoo Thwe is a Burmese human rights activist now living in exile in England. He has written a powerful memoir, From the Land of Green Ghosts, that documents the brutality inflicted by Burma’s repressive regime.
In his memoir, Thwe writes about his fiancee, Moe. She was a freedom advocate in the city of Mandalay. She was arrested and tortured. Moe received a savage beating and gang rape. She was told, “This is what you get if you ask for democracy.”
Following her release, Thwe tried to nurse Moe back to health. Two weeks later she disappeared. Her body was never found. Eventually Moe’s mother was told that she had died “from natural causes” in prison. Tragically, in Burma such incidents continue to be all too common.
In 1988, a military junta crushed a pro-democracy movement in Burma and seized power. Under international pressure, the regime called elections in 1990. But when the National League of Democracy won the vote, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest and the election nullified.
As Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch said earlier this year, “The situation in Burma is as bleak today as at any point in [its] sad recent history. The Burmese government’s repression, paranoia and mismanagement continue to cause misery and suffering inside Burma and pose a growing threat to the stability and well-being of Burma’s neighbors.”
Burma’s military government is one of the most repressive in the world. It severely restricts basic rights and freedoms. It continues to ban opposition political activity and to persecute democracy and human rights activists. It has more than 1,100 political prisoners. It recruits child soldiers and commits extrajudicial executions, rape of women and girls, torture and forced relocation.
The military government has devastated ethnic minority areas. While forcibly relocating minority ethnic groups, it has destroyed 3,000 villages. More than 2 million people have fled to Thailand and other neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands are now internally displaced, living in desperate conditions. And Burma’s military government has cut off assistance to those internally displaced people.
For years, the United States unsuccessfully has sought to condemn Burma’s activities at the U.N. Commission for Human Rights. Despite its record of abuse, however, Burma has escaped rebuke.
But last month when the ASEAN nations gathered in Malaysia for their annual meetings, an important step was taken. The association has committed itself to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. As Malaysian foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar wrote, ”There is genuine concern among the majority of ASEAN members that [Burma] is putting into question ASEAN’s credibility and image.” So the ASEAN nations finally criticized Burma.
It now is important to build international pressure on Burma’s military junta to ease its repressive grip and restore respect for human rights.
Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu commissioned a recent report that calls for ”an urgent, new and multilateral diplomatic initiative” on Burma’s human rights crisis and U.N. Security Council action.
Recent reforms of the U.N. human rights machinery were only partial and raise questions about the capacity of the international community to deal with human rights abuses. The Security Council taking robust action on Burma would be a positive response to such skepticism. More important, it would provide support and hope to the Burmese people who have suffered long enough.
The matter deserves attention. A first step has been taken. Our common humanity should require the U.N. now to increase the pressure for human rights in Burma.
Richard S. Williamson is a Chicago lawyer and former U.S. ambassador at the United Nations.