Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Desmond Tutu & Vaclav Havel on Burma

There were two pieces in Sunday's TorStar about the situation in Burma. I should preface this post by assuring you that I'm not trying to depress anyone! I'm 100% guilty of not paying attention to this problem and Sunday's articles reminded me that Burma deserves attention. And leave it to the wonderful Bishop Desmond Tutu to grab my attention. Tutu has joined forces with former Czech president Vaclav Hegel (both Nobel laureates) to work towards the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy activist who has been under house-arrest for 16 years:
...the injustice of her 16-year imprisonment by her country's military government led Tutu to commission, along with former Czech president Vaclav Havel, a report outlining in harrowing detail why the U.N. Security Council must intervene and shine a light on Burma's bullying generals. Charges against the junta read like those filed against a renegade state: drug trafficking, overthrowing the elected government, persecuting ethnic minorities ordering forced labour and even using rape as a tool of terror. [...] Burma has more child soldiers than any other country in the world; 700,000 refugees have fled in recent years, many to camps on the Thai border. Burma is second only to Afghanistan in heroin production and is the source of unique HIV/AIDS strains that are especially virulent along heroin-trafficking routes.
In the second Sunday TorStar article, we learn a bit about how all of this began:

[click "Read on, MacDuff!" to continue reading]
Since 1962, a military dictatorship has ruled Burma, which the generals renamed Myanmar in 1989. During that time, this country of lush teak forests, tinkling temple bells and golden pagodas has been neglected and largely forgotten by the world. The regime governs like a Mad Hatter's tea party — laws are capriciously applied and policy changes introduced without notice. In a country once the rice bowl of Asia, one-third of the children are malnourished. [...] unseen by tourists, and often unknown to them, are the human rights crimes, the ethnic villages burned to the ground, the military's tacit use of rape as a weapon of war, the far-reaching intrusions of government intelligence, the fear and demoralization of 50 million people living in one of the world's harshest dictatorships. [...] "Lots of ordinary people, my friends and my driver, say they hope America attacks," said one foreigner. "They don't have a clue what that means." A businessman dismissed the possibility of help from Western democracies. "Iraq has oil and we have nothing here," he said. The government, though, is prepared. "The paranoia is such that they are sure the U.S. is going to attack by water," said the foreigner. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she says, Burmese women were being trained by the government to fight. "They took off their longyis and put on trousers and were put through military drills. What did they think they were going to do? Protect their country with spears?"
The report commissioned by Tutu/Havel has encouraged other human rights groups. Last month, Human Rights Watch asked the UN Security Council to address the ongoing abuses and repression going on in Burma. The Baroness Cox (UK House of Lords) has personally taken up the cause of Karen and Karenni people in Eastern Burma. Talking to Stuart Wavell of The Sunday Times (May 8, 2005):
Civilians are used as human minesweepers, forced to walk ahead of soldiers. [...] Reports of chemical weapon attacks emerged last month, following a month-long artillery barrage against a border post held by Karenni soldiers at Nya My, near the Thai town of Mae Hong Son. Witnesses said it culminated with a shell that released a cloud of pungent yellow smoke. This is not the first accusation of its kind. In the mid-1990s I brought back evidence of biological weaponry being used against civilians. In that case it was one of a number of devices designed for detecting monsoons at high atmospheric levels. However, instead of being used for that purpose it was dropped by low-flying aircraft as a means of distributing virulent pathogens along water courses. Those in areas where they landed experienced extreme gastrointestinal infections.
So will the UN Security Council respond to calls for help? Well, Canada has no seat, so we don't get a say. How about our freedom-loving neighbours? Don't count on it. I don't know about Bolton but V.P. Cheney has a rather "conflicted" personal history with Burma. In the Aug 2000 issue of The Nation, Robert Scheer reports:
[Cheney] has been a major advocate of ending sanctions on US investment in Iran, despite that country representing every bit as much a destabilizing force in the world as Iraq. He has been an equally strong opponent of sanctions against investment in Burma, renamed Myanmar and run by arguably the world's most repressive regime, though loved by the oil companies that find a haven there. Cheney and his company have supported lobbying efforts in Congress to end the sanctions against Burma and worked successfully toward getting the US Supreme Court to overrule a Massachusetts state law that penalized companies doing business with Burma.
Let's hope Tutu, Hegel & Cox win this one. Something tells me they have way better "approval ratings."

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