My father was born in Burma and came to England when he was 18. My grandparents, uncles and aunts came some years later. Though I have never been, I am immensely proud of my heritage and family history and would dearly love to travel to Rangoon to see the docks where my grandfather worked for the Port Commissioners, the Strand Hotel where my gran collared various government dignitaries whilst working on the reception to persuade them to let my father take a little money with him on his journey to England and the surrounding streets that I have heard so much about. Unfortunately this just cannot happen whilst it is in the grip of one of the most closed, oppressive dictatorships in the world.
For the past few decades Burma has been controlled by military dictatorship. It has sunk from one of the most educated nations in South East Asia to one of the least with its wealth of natural resources being plundered. The last democratically elected leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the last 3 years under house arrest. Minority Ethnic groups are being killed and displaced from their homes.
What is being done? Well, Burma is not as strategic to western nations as it was when Alec Guinness was busy saving the day. The Middle East occupies the minds and the column inches of the West. China have no great desire to involve themselves and ASEAN, the South East Asian group of countries stand by watching. There is an ineffectual Common European Policy which will never have any teeth as long as TOTAL Oil are pumping their £400m investment into the country to pump their oil out. (The French, you might remember, were fuelling the spin that the Iraq invasion was all about American oil interests. Easy to say whilst you are benefitting from child labour, and a dictatorship that pays many of its manual workers in heroin.) The British having left in haste take the view that it is not worth raising the issue as they will not get agreement at the UN Security Council. This is an interesting take on the situation. If that argument was extended to this country, the Conservatives and LibDems would not raise any issue for fear of losing and the Burmese would not be the only ones with a dictatorship. Whilst being demonised elsewhere, it is the US that are the heroes of this piece. They brought the issue of Burma to the Security Council for the first time in years primarily on the basis of a report written by Jared Genser.
Working in the House of Commons, I get the opportunity to go to some very interesting meetings (and many dull ones), none more so than the All Party Parliamentary Group for Burma, chaired by John Bercow MP. At one such meeting last year, we heard from Jared who showed us his report written as part of probono work carried out by Jared and his law firm on behalf of Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He examined all past Security Council resolutions and found that there were five precedents for action. They are the overthrow of a democratically-elected goverment, conflict between central government and ethnic factions, widespread internal humanitarian/human rights violations, outflow of refugees and other factors including the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug trafficking. It was shown that out of all of the world’s hotspots including Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Rwanda, only Burma satisfied all of these conditions.
This is only the first step in a very long journey. Only yesterday I met a refugee from the Karen who live in the jungle in the East of Burma. She fled the country 10 years ago. At the same time, the British were attending a trade fair in Rangoon. 16,000 of the Karen have been slaughtered or displaced with rape used systematically as a weapon by the military. I can go on, I should go on, but I am late for work and there are others who are more knowledgeable that can tell you more. Please if you do nothing else, get out a map and find out where Burma is. Tell others and collar any decision maker that you come across. Let us shame France and others if need be but we must act and we must act now.