Friday, June 19, 2009

Burma's generals must free Aung San Suu Kyi and embrace democracy

By Gordon Brown

(SMH) - Today is the 64th birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi. The fact that she remains under arrest is tragic for Burma and for all those who believe in democracy. The trial of Ms Suu Kyi is an absurd mockery of justice. The real injustice was not that someone broke into her compound, but that she was imprisoned in the first place.

Ms Suu Kyi has now been imprisoned for 13 of the past 19 years, since the party she led won the last elections in her country.

More than 2000 others are imprisoned across Burma for sharing her commitment to a better future for the long-suffering population.

Even in the face of such injustice, Ms Suu Kyi has always supported the path of peace and reconciliation. But the regime has consistently spurned her offer of dialogue and reconciliation. It wants to isolate her from the people of Burma, for whom she has long been a symbol of hope and defiance.

Her refusal to buckle in the face of tyranny is an inspiration. But words of support are not enough. The region, the European Union and the United Nations are all urging the junta to release Ms Suu Kyi. So far all requests for moderation have been spurned. In the face of such obstinacy, the world must now act. I believe there are three things we must do.

First, we need to support the countries of the region as they step up efforts to secure democracy and reconciliation. I have been struck by how Burma's neighbours have led the world in calling for Ms Suu Kyi's release. We need to translate this outrage into political pressure for change.

Second, we need the UN Security Council to reinforce its calls for Ms Suu Kyi's release and to support the Secretary-General's efforts to bring about political progress through an early visit to Burma.

Third, we should impose a new set of tough sanctions that target the regime's economic interests. We will be pushing for stronger EU action in this regard. Such a step would hit the business interests of the generals and their cronies.

I also believe we should identify and target those judges complicit in the recent political show trials.

The growing sense of outrage and the unity of the international community behind this message should mark a turning point. The regime is at a crossroads. Long-promised elections in 2010 will remain a charade while political prisoners are being tortured, ethnic minorities are persecuted, the media muzzled, freedom of speech and assembly are non-existent and Ms Suu Kyi is silenced. The regime can choose to ignore the clamour for change. But this will only condemn the country to deeper isolation, poverty, conflict and despair.

Or it can choose the path of reform, as the region has urged. Burma is rich in natural and human resources, at the heart of a dynamic continent. Democratic reform would unleash the country's enormous potential. Britain and the international community would be ready to extend the hand of friendship. If the Burmese generals rethink their ways, we will be ready to recognise and embrace any genuine reforms they make.

Some may question why Burma warrants so much attention. There are other countries where human rights are ignored or people live in poverty. But the Burmese junta stands virtually alone in the scale of its misrule and the sheer indifference to the suffering of its 50 million people. How we respond to this injustice will send a message about our resolution to tackle similar injustices across the globe.

To those that stand for human rights, freedom and democracy, our message remains clear - you are not alone.

Gordon Brown is the British Prime Minister.

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