Sunday, June 29, 2008

All of Burma Is a Prison

All of Burma Is a Prison

by Min Zin

Posted June 29, 2008 (Far Eastern Economic Review)

Much has been written about Cyclone Nargis and the failure of Burma’s military junta to respond adequately. But what of the hundreds of political prisoners held in Burma, many in areas devastated by the storm? When Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma in the late night hours of May 2, it did not spare political prisoners. The notorious Insein prison, where hundreds of political prisoners (including my brother) are locked up, was one of the hardest hit places in Rangoon.

Why is my brother in Insein? On Feb. 15, the military raided the offices of the Myanmar Nation and took my brother, the weekly journal’s editor in chief, to jail. His crime? Possession of a U.N. report on the military’s brutal crackdown on last September’s demonstrations by monks and democracy activists—known around the world as the “Saffron Revolution.”

My brother’s name is Thet Zin, and he is one of hundreds of Burmese citizens who struggle to tell the truth about what is happening in their country—whether through traditional forms of journalism or through the Internet—under threat of arrest or worse by the military regime. Along with my brother, his office manager, Sein Win Maung, was also arrested.

When Cyclone Nargis hit, it uprooted trees; rain flooded the prison cells and the power was cut. A fire broke out in one of the prison wards, filling the prison with smoke. The flames triggered a riot. The guards started shooting.

Suffering from asthma, my brother was choking with smoke. His former office manager and fellow inmate, Sein Win Maung, passed out. Some sympathetic prison guards rushed to the cells and managed to push aside fallen trees and move the political prisoners to a prison hospital.

“Many political prisoners in the cells could have died from smoke if the rescue was delayed one more hour,” said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who now works with Thailand-based Assistant Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP-Burma).

It is still hard to know how many died or were injured during the havoc. But according to AAPP at least 36 prisoners at Insein were shot to death when the cylcone hit. Some prisoners, like many of their countrymen, lost their entire family to the cyclone. Thiha Thet Zin, a political prisoner in Insein, was informed that eight out of nine of his family members—including his son, his parents, his grandmother, and all his siblings—were swept away by the storm. His wife was the only survivor.

This is hell on earth. Still, Insein prison and the injustices that take place there are but a microcosm of what’s taking place throughout Burma. To paraphrase Shakespeare, all of Burma is a prison.

Cyclone Nargis claimed more than 138,000 lives and left millions homeless. Still, the junta denied millions of Burmese people the basic right to food by blocking foreign aid workers and supplies in the weeks immediately following the storm.

Indeed, the misuse of international aid is by now well documented. Aid supplies ended up in military warehouses, local markets and the homes of police officers and members of pro-government civilian groups instead of reaching starving and disease-stricken survivors. Soldiers even looted jewelries from dead bodies.

Moreover, the junta forced survivors to take part in the reconstruction of military sites and conscripted male orphans into the army, which before the storm was already notorious for its tens of thousands of child soldiers. All of these reports have been confirmed by sources both inside and outside Burma.

Clearly, the junta’s inability and unwillingness to care for the Burmese people is tantamount to “crimes against humanity.” Cyclone Nargis has exposed the failures of the regime and brought forth a defining moment in Burmese history with inevitable, if yet unpredictable, political consequences.

“Things will not return to status quo ante,” says Priscilla Clapp, a U.S. diplomat who served as Chief of Mission in Burma from 1999-2002. Post-cyclone Burmese politics will be a humanitarian politics—pressuring and arguing about mobilizing aid and its delivery. Political goals will be set aside at least for the medium-term, and more consideration will be given to humanitarian works.
The junta continues to ensure that the cyclone will not have an effect on its “Road Map to discipline flourishing democracy.” But there are pressures within the junta itself that could eventually lead to change. “We have heard that there are considerable tensions within the military,” said David Steinberg, a Burma expert from Georgetown University. “But I don’t know whether the tension is strong enough to split the military and at what level it exists, and whether it is at a high enough level to threaten present leadership.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has approved millions in aid for Burma and now has hundreds of aid workers from member countries in storm-stricken areas. This could serve to expose to the outside world the prison state that is Burma. Still, despite a visit last month by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the demands of dozens of heads of state, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma’s opposition Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest—long after the May 24 deadline for her release.

What’s most important here is to assure the aid money is not used by the junta to retrench and tighten its grip on the Burmese people. Foreign aid runs the risk of being a “jackpot for the military junta, who will be the sole beneficiary of the international donation in the name of the cyclone victims” says Aung Din, a former political prisoner and director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

The outside world must demand more transparency and accountability when it comes to aid money and how it is distributed. So long as the world allows itself to be co-opted and outfoxed by the junta, political prisoners—including Aung San Suu Kyi and those in cyclone-ravaged Insein prison—will continue to languish in Burma’s gulags, and the Burmese people will remain shackled.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Renew Focus on Burma

NEWS ANALYSIS, Irrawaddy Online, Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Renew Focus on Burma


As Aung San Suu Kyi quietly spends another birthday under house arrest on Thursday, the UN Security Council will sit down to a debate on women’s rights, while the European Council is scheduled to examine the role of the European Union (EU) in international affairs. Perhaps the conjunction of events on June 19 will mark a perfect date to start refocusing on Burma’s political crisis.

At her home on the banks of Inya Lake in Rangoon, the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the world, Suu Kyi, will turn 63 on Thursday, having spent almost 13 of the last 19 years under detention.

On the same date on the other side of the world, in New York, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will sit to examine the global progress on Resolution 1325, which was passed unanimously in October 2000. The resolution specifically addresses the impact of war on women by protecting them from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, and addresses women's contributions to conflict resolution and creating sustainable peace.

“There is no more opportune and timely an international gathering to raise the issue of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's unlawful detention and the plight of women in Burma than at this significant occasion,” said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will chair the debate, as the US holds the presidency of the UNSC for June 2008. According to sources close to the US state department, Rice is expected to highlight the situation of Suu Kyi, as well as the plight of women political prisoners and ethnic women in Burma.

There are about 154 imprisoned women activists languishing in Burma's jails, out of almost 2,000 political prisoners. Last week, at least three women volunteers distributing relief supplies to cyclone victims were arrested by Burmese authorities.

Meanwhile, the situation for women and girls in many ethnic areas in Burma is critically serious. In conflict areas such as Karen, Karenni and Shan states, ethnic women and girls, some reportedly as young as 10 years old, are raped by Burmese soldiers during military operations in these areas.

This issue commands not only debate, but urgent action from the Security Council. Also on June 19, the European Council will meet in Brussels and the 27 heads of state will discuss the role of the EU in international affairs. The issue of Burma should be high the agenda of EU leaders.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, many analysts observe that the regime's handling of the humanitarian crisis in the country was tantamount to a “crime against humanity.” France, one of the leading members of the EU, correctly invoked the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine to intervene in Burma on humanitarian grounds.

“We demand the EU's heads of state bring Than Shwe before the International Criminal Court to be tried for his crimes against humanity, as recommended by the European parliament,” said Aung Din, the director of the US Campaign for Burma.

Of course, such a demand may not find an immediately positive reception in the halls of the parliament in Brussels. However, the bottom line is that the international community must renew its focus and prioritize Burma's underlying political crisis.

To this end, the date of Suu Kyi's birthday in conjunction with two major international meetings would be a symbolically good start. One of the key obstacles in reorienting the international community's focus on the political crisis in Burma is the UN principle of keeping humanitarian aspects totally separate from political aspect.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “Issues of assistance and aid in Myanmar [Burma] should not be politicized,” he said before his first meeting with the regime’s leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to plead for international access to the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta.

“While the UN secretary-general, the Burmese regime and allies of the junta have urged that the question of humanitarian aid not be 'politicized,' the regime itself is taking every advantage of the cyclone to cement its grip on power to the exclusion of helping its own people,” said Jared Genser, attorney for Suu Kyi. “As is often the case, distraction and delay in discussing the fundamental issues in Burma only serve the interests of the regime.”

Some sources close to the UN said that Ban is considering a proposal to the Burmese military government that a political solution in Burma be implemented as an integral part in the coordinated reconstruction phase of the cyclone disaster.

However, the prevailing attitude and insistence among some key officials from the UN and INGOs is that even any tough talk from the international community could upset the generals and make the continuation of current access to the country impossible.

During last week's panel discussion in New York convened by the Asia Society and the Open Society Institute, Holmes said that further international sanctions or the threat of force would only have kept aid from the people who so desperately need it.

However, many Burmese opposition groups say such an attitude is appeasement. “How inhumane are they?” asked Aung Din. “They are trying to reward Than Shwe and his clique in the name of humanitarian access. Actually, they have become complicit in allowing Than Shwe to commit crimes against humanity.”NLD spokesperson Nyan Win said that the party always views the issues of politics and humanitarian crises as interrelated."A softly-softly policy has never yielded any solution in the past,” he said. “Nor will it in the future.”

Several UN officials expect the Burmese military may be more confident in dealing with the UN when they come to realize that the UN avoids politicizing humanitarian issues. It could create a better mutual understanding and ultimately lead the junta to become more receptive in cooperating with the UN, even in a political area, said a UN source in New York.

If there were an implicit expectation behind such a jealously guarded humanitarian attitude, it would be dead wrong.

The mentality of the Burmese generals will not allow such tactical optimism feasible. Recently, the junta's top leaders—especially Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye—declared war on UN and INGO officials during the regime's relief-related meetings in the delta area.

According to sources close to the military, Maung Aye said that the foreigners are attempting to enslave the country. He also noted that it was China and Russia, not the UN, that helped convince the US and France to withdraw their naval vessels from international waters off the coast of Burma. The general also gave instructions to stamp out local NGOs and volunteer groups who, in his words, were “like slaves” receiving support from international donors.

Nonetheless, it should always be welcomed that the international community uses persuasion, not force, to achieve its goals, in this case opening up the delta in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone.

However, the tactic of persuasion should not undermine the strategic goal—that of facilitating an acceptable political transition in Burma. Engaging in humanitarian work and pushing for genuine political transition should not be mutually exclusive. Avoiding tough talk and action against a brutal regime out of a fear of upsetting that regime is morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable.

The international community must renew its attention on Burma’s political crisis. Otherwise, Suu Kyi will be blowing out the candles on her birthday cake alone in her house for many more years to come.