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A shameful anachronism

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Demonstrators with a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
Demonstrators with a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.

David Miliband

The international community needs to work more closely than ever before to show Burma’s Generals that their actions are utterly unacceptable.

The eyes of the world are on Burma. Over the past week, we have seen monks and ordinary people alike unite in peaceful protest at a failed and illegitimate government and the hardship it has created. They were met with guns and batons. This is in the same week that India celebrated the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi from whom Daw Aung San Suu Kyi drew inspiration for her philosophy of non-violent protest. Seventeen years after she won an overwhelming victory in Burma’s last election, she remains under house arrest.

The regime has tried to hide from us the horror of their crackdown. But modern technology has meant that we have witnessed images of extraordinary brutality as the regime cracks down on those who dare to stand up. Regardless of our creed or colour, the shameful scenes we have witnessed inside Burma have repulsed and angered us all. It is inconceivable how any government could order its soldiers to beat peaceful, unarmed monks. Now people across the world are demanding that the international community take action that will make Burma’s leaders stop and listen.

At the United Nations in New York, Foreign Ministers have been united in their condemnation of the violence and in their calls for the regime to end their bloody repression. It is clear what the next steps must be: we need the violence to stop and a genuine and credible reconciliation process to be put in place. That process must have Daw Aung San Suu Kyi playing a central role, and include leaders from opposition and minority groups. And it will need to have international legitimacy and support. All those with influence on the regime must press them now to agree to this.

As a multi-ethnic country of some 52 million people, Burma desperately needs a legitimate government that can unite all strands of opinion and heal the rifts created by decades of military dictatorship. Without a genuine process of national reconciliation, there can be no positive future for Burma. Human rights and democracy in Burma are not optional extras that would be nice to have; they are integral to creating the kind of stable regime that everybody wants to see. I hope that the visit to Burma of U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari has helped jump-start this process. He will report to the U.N. Security Council. We hope all member states will make clear their full support for the U.N.’s efforts.

There will always be some who argue that the crisis is a purely internal affair — of no concern to the outside world. But this cannot be right. In a globalised world of increased inter-dependence, we cannot live in isolation from one another; what happens in one country has the potential to affect us all. And it is clear to me that any government that relies on fear to cling on to power will always be a force for instability and uncertainty in the region.

Other than the Burmese people themselves, no one has a greater interest in what happens in Burma over the coming days and weeks than its regional neighbours — particularly India, which shares such a long border with Burma.

Last Thursday, the Asean nations made a statement of unprecedented strength condemning unequivocally the Burmese regime’s violence and calling for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and for a peaceful transition to democracy. It was a statement I welcomed and strongly applauded. Burma’s neighbours, including India, are best placed to put the pressure on Burma’s military leadership that will enable Burma’s transformation to begin. It is absolutely vital that India and the Asean partners now use their influence to support Mr. Gambari’s efforts and ensure that the opportunity for reform and reconciliation is not lost.

In a region which has transformed itself — socially, economically, and politically — Burma stands out as a shameful anachronism. Its government belongs in the darker chapters of 20th century history, not in the dynamic and vibrant world of 21st century Asia. The international community needs to work more closely than ever before to show the Generals that their actions are utterly unacceptable, and to help create the political and economic conditions that will give the Burmese people hope of peace and prosperity. They deserve nothing less.


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