Just before he died, I had the privilege to meet Michael Aris, the husband of Aung San Suu Kyi. With the support of the international community, he was desperately trying to see his wife for the last time. The Burmese authorities said no, and made clear that she could never return if she left Burma. I was struck then – as now – by her enduring strength of purpose.
Even after 17 years of imprisonment and house arrest, she sends a message to the world that no confinement or prison cell, no intimidation or brutality, no personal loss or even the threat to life itself can ever destroy her spirit nor her faith in human nature – and it can never extinguish her determination that one day her people will be free.
The grainy images that we have seen over recent days on our television screens of monks and ordinary citizens in Burma protesting against the illegitimate and oppressive regime controlling their country have once again galvanised the international community.
Through their dignified but resolute protests, the Burmese people are reminding the world of the decision they made as long ago as 1990 to reject military rule and embrace democracy. They are telling us once again of the failure of the Burmese regime to respond to the need for change. I am appalled by the violence used by the Burmese authorities to try to suppress the peaceful demonstrations.
Burma should be one of the most promising economies in south-east Asia. Instead, it is one of the poorest countries in the region. Many live on less than a dollar a day; inflation has placed basic commodities beyond the reach of average citizens; and, according to Save the Children, half of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished.
We know Burma already had one of the worst human rights records in the world: a country of only 20 million people with a thousand political prisoners, 500,000 political refugees, poets and journalists tortured for speaking out.
I want to tell those within the regime who order violence against the people: stand down the troops – the age of impunity is over. They must immediately stop the violence and begin a genuine negotiation for a return to democracy. And Aung San Suu Kyi must be at the heart of it.
For our part, the international community has an obligation to stand up for the people of Burma. It is essential we speak with one voice. At our instigation, the EU, meeting yesterday, made it clear that we will not hesitate to impose expanded sanctions if the Burmese authorities do not exercise restraint.
I have also called for the UN Security Council to send a clear message to the Burmese regime to stop using violence against peaceful demonstrators. I have asked the secretary general Ban Ki -moon to send his envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, to Rangoon as soon as possible. Finally, we know that those with the most influence over the situation are Burma's neighbours. I am encouraging them to use their access to the Burmese government to ensure that the voice of the Burmese people is understood.
The people of Burma are demonstrating extraordinary bravery in making their voices heard despite the threats and violence they face. The international community must match their commitment in finding a solution to the unacceptable situation in Burma. Britain will play its part.
The writer is British Prime MinisterReuse content