Sunday, December 12, 2004

Byzantine Politics In Burma

Today comes the news, reported here and here, that Burma's ruling junta has announced it is releasing 5,070 prisoners who were arrested "inappropriately". On the surface this looks like a promising development, perhaps even signalling a slight relaxation in the iron-fisted pursuit of power by the egregiously-named State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). But the reality is rather more bleak. Of those released only about 40 are actually political detainees, including U Thu Wai, the Chairman and U Htwe Myint, the vice-chairman of Democracy Party. The main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of course remains under house arrest - recently extended under the terms of the sinister "Law Safeguarding the State from the Danger of Subversive Elements" - and there are no signs she will be released any time soon. She has now spent more than nine years in detention. Amnesty International estimates that there were 1,350 political detainees in 2004, many associated with Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

So what is being done about this shameful poison on the region's politics? Well, to judge from some recent developments not very much at all.
For example, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), who were meeting for a summit in neighbouring Laos recently, basically avoided any discussion of Burma. The junta, due to take over Asean's rotating chair in 2006, is a source of growing embarrassment for the regional organisation since its policy of so-called "constructive engagement" has manifestly failed to elicit any changes. But the Asean member states seem not to be prepared to bring any meaningful pressure to bear on the regime, though there are some voices calling to Suu Kyi's release. It is simply pathetic. For, if any reminder were needed, here is the nature of the beast:
Burma is ruled by one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world; a dictatorship charged by the United Nations with a "crime against humanity" for its systematic abuses of human rights, and condemned internationally for refusing to transfer power to the legally elected Government of the country.
At the very least the time is right to step up real pressure on the junta. As a recent Guardian editorial put it:
It is now time for the UN security council to face Chinese pressure and hold a fully fledged debate on an appropriate response by the international community. If that happens, it must look at punitive action, a ban on new investment and the exports that provide this brutal regime with most of its income.
The people of Burma have waited too long already.


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