Monday, December 24, 2007

Prayer for Burma

By Dan Mariano

This Christmas spare a thought for the people of Burma. They may not be Christians but the Buddhism that most of them practice values compassion above all—sometimes more so than many self-styled followers of Jesus. To the Burmese people’s misfortune, however, their military rulers sorely lack this and many other virtues.

It was only a few months ago when the military junta ruthlessly cracked down on the pro-democracy movement with a ferocity that rivaled the Chinese government’s assault at Tia­nanmen Square in 1989.

The Burmese army’s crackdown last August also brought back frightful memories of the “8888 Uprising.” On August 8, 1988, Burmese soldiers opened fire on protesters who took to the streets against economic mismanagement and political repression. The Burmese military subsequently imposed martial law.

Hoping to quell international outrage, the military junta called for elections of delegates to the People’s Assembly in 1990—the first political exercise of its kind in 30 years. However, when the polls showed the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, capturing 60 percent of the vote and over 80 percent of parliamentary seats, the election results were annulled by the regime of Senior General Saw Maung.

In contrast, the military-backed National Unity Party garnered less than two percent of the People’s Assembly seats.

Free Suu Kyi

As a pro-democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi has gained international recognition; in 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Notwithstanding mounting pressure from the United Nations and even from Burma’s usually convivial partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Myanmar junta has kept her under house arrest. The regime has sought to placate the international community by occasionally releasing political prisoners, but it has rejected proposals—even from its Asean partners—to free Aung San Suu Kyi.

In Asean circles only the Philippines has consistently criticized the Myanmar regime for its horrendous human rights record. Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York last September, President Arroyo urged the junta “to return to the path of democracy and release Aung San Suu Kyi.”

In Manila, the Philippine Senate also urged the UN Security Council, the European Union and Asean to “intervene and restore democracy in Burma.”

On a rare occasion when our political leaders found themselves in agreement, the Philippines added its voice to the worldwide condemnation of the Myanmar junta’s bloody crackdown on Buddhist monk-led street protests, which were sparked by complaints over skyrocketing fuel prices.

Nobody knows for sure how many people were killed or injured as Myanmar troops bore down on protesters in Rangoon and other cities. However, enough information has filtered out to justify universal outrage.

Seven Steps

Even Beijing, which has yet to express remorse for its own violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrators 18 years ago, has been forced to join the global call for reform in Burma. However, China has been careful not to press too hard. With a dismal human rights record of its own, China claims it is satisfied with the Myanmar junta’s “Seven Steps” to reform.

Most of Myanmar’s Asean partners, too, prefer not to rock the boat. Instead, they have adopted what they describe as “constructive engagement” with junta.

Last January, during the Asean Summit in Cebu, the regional grouping’s vacillation became obvious when it failed to find common ground on the lack of reform in Burma. Only the Philippines has remained steadfast in rebuking the Myanmar junta.

At another Asean summit in Singapore last November, Mrs. Arroyo scored the Myanmar junta, deploring the slow pace of democratic reforms. Speaking to reporters, she said: “Let me be very clear. We ... remain concerned about the pace of progress of Burma on the issue of human rights. We particularly deplore the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi. She must be released, now.”

The Singapore summit adopted a charter that envisions an EU-style bloc in Southeast Asia, but the pact will amount to nothing if the 10 Asean members fail to ratify it unanimously. Our delegation has said it does not expect the Philippine Congress to approve the charter “unless Myanmar upholds the charter’s principles of democracy and human rights.”

Has the international pressure on the Myanmar junta helped the process of democratization in Burma at all?

At the Kapihan sa Sulo media forum Saturday, the Philippine ambassador to Burma Noel Cabrera reported that the Myanmar regime has begun working on a new constitution, which contains human rights guarantees.

“Going by their Seven Steps program, I would say that Myanmar has already moved to its third step,” the newsman-turned-diplomat said. “Still, we believe that reforms should be adopted as soon as possible.”

This Christmas spare a thought for the people of Burma—better yet, say a prayer for them.

No comments: