Thursday, November 20, 2008

UN, Asean Must Speak Up

The Irrawaddy News

Twice in little more than a year, Burma’s rulers have earned international opprobrium for crimes they have committed against innocent people.

Last September, the world was horrified to witness the regime’s ruthless crackdown on peacefully protesting monks. Then, in May of this year, the junta demonstrated its callous disregard for human life in another way—by refusing for several weeks to allow foreign aid workers to assist hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were torn apart by Cyclone Nargis.

Compared to these outrages, the generals’ latest display of contempt for fundamental human rights seems to pale into insignificance. But the recent spate of lengthy prison sentences imposed on detained activists by kangaroo courts at Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison deserves a much stronger response than we have seen so far.

Since late last week, there has been a steady and depressing stream of news about court decisions against some of Burma’s bravest and most capable dissident leaders. Some have been given 65-year prison sentences, signaling that the junta remains as indifferent to world opinion now as it was during the outcry over the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis.

That should not be too surprising. The junta has learned that it can ride out any storm of international criticism as long as it has the backing of powerful supporters in the United Nations Security Council and a buffer of non-confrontational neighbors who see its atrocities as little more than occasional sources of embarrassment.

But this latest development threatens to further undermine the credibility of international efforts to hold the Burmese generals accountable, at a time when both the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are still trying to portray the regime as a serious “partner” in the Nargis relief effort.

It may be one of the greatest ironies of the Nargis tragedy that it has bestowed upon the junta the very air of legitimacy that the generals have long sought. Simply by ceasing to be as obstructive as they were during the first month after the disaster, they have suddenly been elevated to the status of responsible players on the world stage.

And now, as a further, and even more perverse, irony, it seems that the generals have been emboldened by this “partnership” to believe that it entitles them to treat their opponents any way they please.

After all, the generals may reason, would the world body and a major regional grouping be willing to stand side by side in a humanitarian endeavor with a rogue regime? If the junta can’t be trusted to dispense justice to its critics, why would some of the world’s most respected organizations be so willing to embrace it on equal terms?

Of course, it is impossible to know what is going through the minds of Snr-Gen Than Shwe and other senior members of the ruling junta. But it should not be necessary to wonder what UN and Asean leaders think about the current situation and how it impacts on their relationship with the regime.

So far, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has issued a single pro forma statement expressing “deep concern” about the latest round of assaults on the dignity of Burma’s pro-democracy activists, while his Asean counterpart, Surin Pitsuwan, has had nothing to say about the gross miscarriages of justice being committed in Burma.

There have also been the usual obligatory statements from human rights experts attached to the UN, calling for free and fair trials, but as we have seen time and again, these carry precious little weight with the Burmese authorities.

Like it or not, it is now up to Ban and Pitsuwan to put more of the prestige of their offices on the line, or risk sending the Burmese regime the message that it has carte blanche to continue with its criminal behavior.

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