John Bercow: This vile regime in Burma has to be confronted

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is hard to believe the extraordinary courage of tens of thousands of Burmese people, led by Buddhist monks, who continue to protest peacefully across Burma against the savage, bestial regime which terrorises its people. Images of saffron robes filling the streets of at least 25 towns and cities in Burma are nothing short of inspirational.

At long last Burma, one of the world's most under-reported human rights tragedies, dominates our media – and has begun to claim the attention of our politicians. I returned last week from a visit to the India-Burma border, with the human rights charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide and my Parliamentary colleague Caroline Cox. I heard tales of unimaginable brutality. I met people from Chin State in western Burma who had fled for their lives bearing tales of daily fear and misery – a cocktail of torture, killings, forced labour and rape, combined with more insidious policies of forced marriage, religious persecution and cultural genocide served up by the military.

I met a boy who had been abducted by Burma Army soldiers when he was just three years old. His father was an opposition activist, and had escaped from jail. As bait, the regime held this boy in a cell with no windows and a mud floor in an army camp for eight hours. He was given neither food nor water. That is an example of the depths to which this despicable regime will plunge in order to cling onto its ill-gotten gains.

The litany of terror does not end there. I met a man whose son had been beaten and tortured so badly that he is now paralysed. Another man described how he had been hung upside down and tortured all night, his body swung repeatedly against a pillar.

While the regime's tactics may vary subtly throughout the country, its character is consistent. It has no compunction whatsoever about raping, torturing and killing its people. Prior to my journey last week, I have made two visits to the Thai-Burmese border in the past three years. There I met children who had seen their parents killed in front of them, and parents who had seen their children killed in front of them. I met people who had endured excruciating water torture. I heard tales of people who had been used as human minesweepers, forced to walk across fields of landmines.

Burma's junta is guilty of every conceivable human rights violation. It has the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. It spends more than 40 per cent of its budget on the military, and less than 60p per person per year on health and education combined. Since 1996, the regime has destroyed more than 3,000 villages in eastern Burma alone. More than a million people have been forced to flee their villages, and are on the run in the jungle without adequate food, medicine or shelter. Gordon Brown's statement yesterday is to be welcomed. For the second time in two weeks, the Prime Minister has turned his attention to Burma. He has called for "immediate international action". His attention is unprecedented. No previous prime minister has specified action on Burma.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has called for Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to be allowed to take "her rightful place" as Burma's elected leader. Her party, the National League for Democracy, overwhelmingly won the 1990 elections – but the illegitimate military regime rejected the results, imprisoned the victors and intensified its grip on power.

Now there are signs that that grip may be weakening. But fine words from world leaders are not enough. An urgent, explicit and robust challenge to the butchers of Rangoon is a vital prerequisite of progress.

Most importantly, the UN Security Council must address the crisis in Burma. Yesterday Buddhist monks marched to the UN offices in Rangoon, pleading for the Security Council to act. A binding resolution should be passed, setting out specific benchmarks, accompanied by deadlines, which the regime should meet. These include freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, releasing political prisoners, and starting meaningful dialogue with the National League for Democracy and the ethnic national groups about the transition to free and fair elections. The junta must be left in no doubt that it will be targeted as a pariah state if it does not comply.

The EU should strengthen its measures. Current EU sanctions are symbolic but they do not bite. Stopping European companies from investing in a pineapple juice factory is laughable when the junta is propped up instead by a surge of funds into the oil, gas and gem sectors. Such investment must be banned. Agreement on a stronger EU common position is desirable but, without it, the UK should act unilaterally.

Burma's neighbours should play their part too. India has until now pursued a policy that is both immoral and irresponsible. Refusing to criticise the regime, India has instead provided arms and military training. How can that be, in the nation of Gandhi and Nehru? Similarly, China and the Association of South-East Asian Nations must be prevailed upon to end their complicity with the thugs in Burma.

One man summed up his country to me last week: "We have no freedom. People always live in fear. We are prisoners in our own country. We urgently need democracy." The world urgently needs to hear that cry – and respond.

The writer is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for democracy in Burma