The Australian: Let’s Not Miss this Mandela Moment
Originally published in The Australian by Benedict Rogers and Joseph Loconte.
Now Aung San Suu Kyi is free, world leaders must fight for real democracy.
For years, the international community and human rights activists have campaigned for the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democracy leader and Nobel laureate. Watching her leave her house after 15 years and 20 days in detention was as momentous as the scenes of Nelson Mandela leaving a South African prison 20 years ago.
There is one key difference. Mandela was freed because South Africa’s apartheid regime was crumbling. Not so in Burma. The dictatorial regime of Than Shwe has released Suu Kyi not as a step towards political liberalisation but as a ploy to get the international community off its back.
The world’s democratic leaders must send the regime a strong and unambiguous message: real change will come only if all political prisoners, numbering more than 2100, are freed, and the military ends its offensives against ethnic civilians. Rape, forced labour, torture, the forcible recruitment of child soldiers and the destruction of villages must stop. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which won 82 per cent of the seats in 1990 but was banned from government, remains an outlawed political party. A dialogue between the regime, the democracy movement and the ethnic nationalities must begin.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must discover a measure of courage and creativity. His response to the regime’s sham election held earlier this month — “insufficiently inclusive”– was anemic. An election that barred Suu Kyi and the NLD from participating, guaranteed 25 per cent of the assembly seats to the military before the voting began, disenfranchised at least 1.5 million people living in ethnic areas where voting was not held, and was marked by rigging and intimidation was a cynical charade and a national scandal.
This is the same paranoid regime that prevented international aid workers entering the country following the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. It took pressure from the Secretary-General, China, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — as well as the presence of French, British and American naval ships loaded with aid off Burma’s coast — to get Than Shwe to ease some restrictions. Even then, access was limited and much of the international aid was stolen or diverted.
What next? Dialogue is the one policy that unites everyone. The UN Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights Council and Secretary-General, the European Union, the US, ASEAN and even China have called for dialogue. Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities have made dialogue and national reconciliation pillars of their platform. Only the regime so far has refused, but it is clear now that the alternative to dialogue is more ethnic conflict and political instability.
Ban should initiate high-level diplomatic engagement, coupled with targeted pressure. For years, Burma has been handled by low-level UN envoys who have been snubbed and mocked by the generals. The Secretary-General must show leadership and deploy all resources available to kick-start a UN-led dialogue.
The time for timidity has passed. Ban should dispatch his chief of staff to the region immediately and begin the process of challenging the regime to enter into dialogue. At the same time, the UN should establish a commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity. Suu Kyi’s release could provide an opportunity for real change in Burma, but only if the international community, led by Ban, finally takes the action required.
Benedict Rogers is a London-based human rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He has made more than 30 visits to Burma. Joseph Loconte is a lecturer in politics at The King’s College in New York City.