By MIN ZIN
The Irrawaddy News
As Aung San Suu Kyi quietly spends another birthday under house arrest on Thursday, the UN Security Council will sit down to a debate on women’s rights, while the European Council is scheduled to examine the role of the European Union (EU) in international affairs. Perhaps the conjunction of events on June 19 will mark a perfect date to start refocusing on Burma’s political crisis.
At her home on the banks of Inya Lake in Rangoon, the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the world, Suu Kyi, will turn 63 on Thursday, having spent almost 13 of the last 19 years under detention.
On the same date on the other side of the world, in New York, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will sit to examine the global progress on Resolution 1325, which was passed unanimously in October 2000. The resolution specifically addresses the impact of war on women by protecting them from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, and addresses women's contributions to conflict resolution and creating sustainable peace.
“There is no more opportune and timely an international gathering to raise the issue of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's unlawful detention and the plight of women in Burma than at this significant occasion,” said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy.
United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will chair the debate, as the US holds the presidency of the UNSC for June 2008. According to sources close to the US state department, Rice is expected to highlight the situation of Suu Kyi, as well as the plight of women political prisoners and ethnic women in Burma.
There are about 154 imprisoned women activists languishing in Burma's jails, out of almost 2,000 political prisoners. Last week, at least three women volunteers distributing relief supplies to cyclone victims were arrested by Burmese authorities.
Meanwhile, the situation for women and girls in many ethnic areas in Burma is critically serious. In conflict areas such as Karen, Karenni and Shan states, ethnic women and girls, some reportedly as young as 10 years old, are raped by Burmese soldiers during military operations in these areas. This issue commands not only debate, but urgent action from the Security Council.
Also on June 19, the European Council will meet in Brussels and the 27 heads of state will discuss the role of the EU in international affairs.
The issue of Burma should be high the agenda of EU leaders. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, many analysts observe that the regime's handling of the humanitarian crisis in the country was tantamount to a “crime against humanity.” France, one of the leading members of the EU, correctly invoked the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine to intervene in Burma on humanitarian grounds.
“We demand the EU's heads of state bring Than Shwe before the International Criminal Court to be tried for his crimes against humanity, as recommended by the European parliament,” said Aung Din, the director of the US Campaign for Burma.
Of course, such a demand may not find an immediately positive reception in the halls of the parliament in Brussels.
However, the bottom line is that the international community must renew its focus and prioritize Burma's underlying political crisis. To this end, the date of Suu Kyi's birthday in conjunction with two major international meetings would be a symbolically good start.
One of the key obstacles in reorienting the international community's focus on the political crisis in Burma is the misleading UN principle of keeping humanitarian aspects totally separate from political aspect, according to UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes.
In fact, Holmes was echoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's words. “Issues of assistance and aid in Myanmar [Burma] should not be politicized,” he said before his first meeting with the regime’s leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to plead for international access to the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta.
“While the UN secretary-general, the Burmese regime and allies of the junta have urged that the question of humanitarian aid not be “politicized,” the regime itself is taking every advantage of the cyclone to cement its grip on power to the exclusion of helping its own people,” said Jared Genser, attorney for Suu Kyi. “As is often the case, distraction and delay in discussing the fundamental issues in Burma only serve the interests of the regime.”
Some sources close to the UN said that Ban is considering a proposal to the Burmese military government that a political solution in Burma be implemented as an integral part in the coordinated reconstruction phase of the cyclone disaster.
However, the prevailing attitude and insistence among some key officials from the UN and INGOs is that even any tough talk from the international community could upset the generals and make the continuation of current access to the country impossible.
During last week's panel discussion in New York convened by the Asia Society and the Open Society Institute, Holmes said that further international sanctions or the threat of force would only have kept aid from the people who so desperately need it.
However, many Burmese opposition groups say such an attitude is appeasement.
“How inhumane are they?” asked Aung Din. “They are trying to reward Than Shwe and his clique in the name of humanitarian access. Actually, they have become complicit in allowing Than Shwe to commit crimes against humanity.”
NLD spokesperson Nyan Win said that the party always views the issues of politics and humanitarian crises as interrelated.
"A softly-softly policy has never yielded any solution in the past,” he said. “Nor will it in the future.”
Several UN officials expect the Burmese military may be more confident in dealing with the UN when they come to realize that the UN avoids politicizing humanitarian issues.
It could create a better mutual understanding and ultimately lead the junta to become more receptive in cooperating with the UN, even in a political area, said a UN source in New York.
If there were an implicit expectation behind such a jealously guarded humanitarian attitude, it would be dead wrong. The mentality of the Burmese generals will not allow such tactical optimism feasible.
Recently, the junta's top leaders—especially Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye—declared war on UN and INGO officials during the regime's relief-related meetings in the delta area.
According to sources close to the military, Maung Aye said that the foreigners are attempting to enslave the country. He also noted that it was China and Russia, not the UN, that helped convince the US and France to withdraw their naval vessels from international waters off the coast of Burma. The general also gave instructions to stamp out local NGOs and volunteer groups who, in his words, were “like slaves” receiving support from international donors.
Nonetheless, it should always be welcomed that the international community uses persuasion, not force, to achieve its goals, in this case opening up the delta in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone. However, the tactic of persuasion should not undermine the strategic goal—that of facilitating an acceptable political transition in Burma.
Engaging humanitarian work and pushing for genuine political transition should not be mutually exclusive. Avoiding tough talk and action against a brutal regime out of a fear of upsetting that regime is morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable.
The international community must renew its attention on Burma’s political crisis. Otherwise, Suu Kyi will be blowing out the candles on her birthday cake alone in her house for many more years to come.