Why Burma's repression gives cause for optimism

'Aung San Suu Kyi's act of defiance will have sent a shock wave of hope through the population'


James Mawdsley was 11 years old when he read Solzhenitsyn's
The Gulag Archipelago. It was a choice of reading matter that might have offered a pointer to the events that have now engulfed himself, his family and friends. Last week James entered his second year in solitary confinement as a prisoner of the Burmese military regime.

James Mawdsley was 11 years old when he read Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. It was a choice of reading matter that might have offered a pointer to the events that have now engulfed himself, his family and friends. Last week James entered his second year in solitary confinement as a prisoner of the Burmese military regime.

His jail conditions have worsened in that period. When his father David last saw him at the end of June, James was still allowed physical contact with visitors. A few weeks later the British ambassador to Burma, John Jenkin, went to visit and was prevented from shaking James's hand. On three occasions he was refused this minimal contact.

Did the Burmese authorities think Her Majesty's representative was about to slip a weapon to the prisoner, or to miraculously spirit him out of their custody? Now they insist that the prisoner sits behind a glass cage whenever he receives visitors. It is another attempt to break the spirit of a young Londoner whose only crime was to speak out for the rights of one of the world's most oppressed peoples.

Now that the Burmese have imposed this restriction, James Mawdsley is refusing to receive visitors. His contention is that he is not a criminal and will not be treated like one. Although naturally distressed at being unable to see their son, David and Diana Mawdsley support his actions. As I write, his mother is sitting in a hotel in northern Burma waiting to see if the Burmese junta will relent and remove the cage. She knows it is unlikely.

These are the same people who refused to allow the dying husband of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to enter the country so that his wife could nurse him in his final days of life. Had she left Burma to be with him, she would never have been allowed return.

Cynical, brutal, venal. The generals have made Burma the saddest country in the world.

And yet of all the weeks I've followed the news from Rangoon, this has been the most hopeful since the moment of light when Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest five years ago. This week she was jostled by the regime's policemen and the British ambassador badly manhandled.

For the first time in many months, the world was exposed to the full wretchedness of the junta. In a country where the ordinary citizen is a prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi's act of defiance will have sent a shock wave of hope through the population. The reporting restrictions - the toughest in the world - ensure that none of the true evil of the junta's actions is known to the wider world. The junta also refused to allow the UN Human Rights rapporteur to visit the country. So we depend on human rights organisations and the testimonies of ordinary Burmese who have escaped from the country. Massacre, rape, forced labour - it happens in the dark zone into which no foreign eyes may peer.

If you want to cruise up the Irrawaddy or visit the temples of Pagan, then the regime will welcome you. But see what happens if try to show your solidarity with villagers in Shan State, where the military has destroyed more than 1,400 villages and uprooted 300,000 people since 1996. To enter the county three times when you know the authorities hate your guts represents not foolhardiness as cynics might suggest, but a rare courage. For the record, James Mawdsley was handing out democracy leaflets when he was arrested.

The diplomatic reaction to James Mawdsley's ordeal and the police mugging of Aung San Suu Kyi has so far been limited to Europe and America. In the place where it really matters though - Asia - there has been a roaring silence. A Thai foreign ministry spokesman was interviewed on the BBC's East Asia Today programme as part of a week of special programmes.

The Thai waffled on about economic development and encouraging Burma to change. The presenter reminded him that the World Bank had only recently spoken about the "silent emergency" of malnutrition in the country. The Thai spokesman said his country was not blind to what was happening in Burma. Not blind but cynical. For like the rest of the ASEAN nations - and add in the Japanese as well - the Thais know what is happening. They cling to the fig leaf of "constructive engagement", claiming their links with Burma help spur the process of democracy.

And what about our very own Premier Oil company? They and several other oil companies are partners with the Burmese military in a huge pipeline project. One estimate is that the Burmese regime will earn about $400m from the pipeline deal. The investment is in direct opposition to the wishes of a pro-democracy movement elected to power by an overwhelming majority (82 percent of the seats) in the democratic elections the military annulled. But business is business. (For the record, Premier has said it is investing in big education and health projects in the area.)

In a book about business ethics, the highly respected Professor Tom Donaldson of Georgetown University has spoken about a "dramatic threshold". This is the point where the human rights abuse in a country becomes so entrenched and systemic that business reaches a point where investment is no longer ethically viable. The professor concluded that Burma would probably be such a place. I was not an absolutist about sanctions in the case of South Africa. I believed that some worked and some did not; some hurt the state and others hurt the people they were supposed to protect. Yet when I asked black South Africans who were suffering under apartheid if they agreed with sanctions, the answer was always an overwhelming "Yes". The difference was that even in the worst days of apartheid you could always ask the people. Do such an interview with somebody in Burma and you run the strong risk of having the person arrested.

It does all lead you to some interesting contemplation of human nature. On the one hand we have somebody like James Mawdsley enduring solitary confinement for the sake of his beliefs; on the other we have the oil bosses counting their profits. The person in whom the majority of Burmese place their faith for the future, Aung San Suu Kyi, has refused a "cozy" deal with the dictators. They would love to have her safely out of the country. It reminds me of the letter read by Mandela's daughter to a huge crowd in Soweto when the jailed leader publicly rejected an offer of clemency from the apartheid state. The deal was that he would retire to his homeland and keep out of politics. He wrote: "My freedom and your freedom are inseparable." I will never forget the cheer which greeted those words.

Which brings me back to the optimism I expressed at the outset. Mandela's words were uttered in the darkest days of the South African state of emergency. None of us then believed that liberation was remotely possible in the next decade. In four years, Mandela walked free from jail. Four years after that he was elected president of a democratic South Africa. Sure Burma is different. It hasn't yet captured the attention of the world in the way South Africa did. But with every gesture of defiance the world sees a little more and, the cynics and profiteers notwithstanding, will care a little more as well.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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