BURMA: What will it take for the UN to act?

To the surprise of many, the protests against sharp fuel rises in Burma have continued for a second week, despite constant arrests and harassment of demonstrators and their leaders by plain-clothed police, government officials and gangs of thugs mobilised for the purpose, while soldiers are reported to be watching and waiting in the wings in case events prove uncontrollable.

The protests have now spread to parts of at least six out of the country’s 14 states and divisions, and for the first time members of the Buddhist monastic order have come out in force: over 150 monks and novices marched in the capital of the western Arakan State on 28 August 2007, joined by another 50 to a hundred ordinary citizens. Fittingly, they chose to walk along U Ottama Street, named after a monk from the region who led the struggle against British colonial rule and was imprisoned with hard labour for three years as a consequence.

Meanwhile, another 500 persons marched peacefully across Pegu, north of Rangoon, where further sporadic protests that were held outside of market places in downtown and suburban areas were met with violence and persons were taken away in the by now omnipresent Dyna flat-back trucks that are being used in lieu of vehicles with official markings. Courageous individuals have video taped many of the marches and abductions of participants, and have sent the images abroad for the world to see.

What can no longer be denied is that there is in this the spark that could ignite another mass uprising against Burma’s atrocious military regime. As virtually all of the leaders from the initial protests after the unannounced August 15 price hike are now in illegal detention, it is clear that the continued rallies are not being organised through any one group or body of leaders but rather are an expression of deep and swelling resentment at the army government. The marches in Sittwe and Pegu in particular were organised by local monks and ordinary citizens and did not apparently include among them any of the prominent leaders from the 1988 generation who began walking in Rangoon on August 19, or their allies.

Persons who have so far denied that the current protests bear a resemblance to those of 1988 also appear to have forgotten that the mass demonstrations of that year did not happen overnight: on the contrary, they slowly built up over a period of about six months, and were spread over about a further five months before being crushed through the use of undisguised sheer brutality of an unexceptional scale.

One of the differences between then and now is the capacity for news to be spread outside and inside the country with unprecedented speed and coverage. Every small incident is known to persons outside of Burma within hours of it taking place, and is soon broadcast back into the country via the short wave radio services that keep the population informed of what their government does not wish them to hear. These same services report in detail on the reaction of the international community, and reports of strong interest from abroad serve to galvanise the spirit and efforts of people there.

Unfortunately, the world leaders who speak so often about democracy and human rights appear not to understand this. Since its open letter of August 24 calling on the Secretary General of the United Nations to take intervene in the worsening situation in Burma, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received messages from people in all parts of the world asking why the UN has so far sat on its hands.

The AHRC is asking the same question: ironically, the fleeting expressions of concern by the Secretary General and High Commissioner for Human Rights about the current situation in Burma have served no purpose other than to give further confidence to its dictatorship. It has heard such remarks countless times before and will no doubt be reassured that yet again empty rhetoric is all that the United Nations has to offer its fifty million long-suffering people. And not only the UN but also other multilateral agencies, notably the European Union, deserve criticism for the complete lack of timely and meaningful intervention at this critical time.

The Asian Human Rights Commission iterates its call for firm and deliberate action by the United Nations on Burma: now, today. It proposes that the Secretary General and High Commissioner each call urgent strategy meetings with concerned personnel and informed advisers–not merely persons with diplomatic credentials but those who know what is actually going on in the country–to discuss and propose immediate steps. It also echoes calls for an emergency session of the Security Council to be held on the same, as the consequences of the recent hikes in prices will under any circumstances have ramifications for the region.

Finally, the AHRC earnestly calls upon concerned fellow members of the public everywhere to lobby their governments to act, before it is again too little, too late for Burma. It is confident of the genuine interest in their wellbeing among other ordinary persons throughout the world, and is convinced that if the global popular outrage at what is happening there today can be translated into strong demands upon representative governments for a unified and coherent response to these events then this will make a big difference: in fact, it could be the difference between survival and disaster for the people of Burma.


Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-206-2007
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),
Campaigns : Burma Peoples Protests