Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Don't let junta off the hook

By Thaung Htun

(The Australian) IF it were possible for human rights in Burma to be further assailed, then Cyclone Nargis managed to provide the opportunity. The storm, which swept through Burma's Irrawaddy Delta in May, killed up to 140,000 and ruined the lives of millions. Human rights are also a victim of Nargis.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch recently observed: "The greatest obstacle faced by the international community in addressing the large-scale reconstruction needs of the Irrawaddy Delta is Burma's abusive military regime." Yet the Burmese generals pat themselves on the back for ratifying an important regional human rights charter. Those who live in the real world must not be bought off by this latest lavish ruse.

Burma's ratification of the human rights charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is infused with the sharpest irony.

For one, the charter, despite being years in the making, is neither enforceable nor does it carry any powers of prosecution. In fact, it extends ASEAN's non-interference culture to new lows. While the Burmese military junta remains truculently unwilling to provide basic access to foreign aid organisations post-Nargis, ASEAN seems prepared to allow a signature on a document to stand for its commitment to justice and human rights.

The torpid nature of ASEAN's human rights culture is epitomised in article14 of its charter. Pertaining directly to human rights in the region, the two-paragraph entry is vague and weak in tone. It's a perfect backdrop to ASEAN's listless approach.

So, for Burma's generals, ratifying the human rights statement was a no-brainer. The timing is clearly political, as it provides a moment for the generals to bask in some rare global community warmth. It also acts as a diversion to ongoing human rights violations in Burma.

Burma's junta is already a signatory to treaties and agreements on the rights of women, children, labour and unionists, among others. These documents gather dust on the shelves of military dictators while the Burmese horror story goes on.

More specifically, the generals continue to ignore the suffering of those affected by Nargis.

Nearly three months after Nargis, more than one million Burmese still have not received any assistance from international humanitarian and aid agencies. Wads of aid money are landing in the khaki pockets of the country's rulers, prompting the British Government to reconsider providing any aid at all, invoking the principle of its responsibility to protect Burma's civilians. This money funds continued atrocities of various degrees.

For instance, villagers still are being press-ganged into rebuilding roads and other infrastructure projects, even as donor money is pledged to pay for them. The Burmese military still is forcibly relocating many villagers in the Irrawaddy Delta, often to put them out of the reach of international aid workers. Meanwhile, there are critical shortages in housing materials, educational materials such as books, water and sanitation equipment, and health care and basic medical services. Some areas are desperately short of food.

On another level, people still are being detained, including locals who have volunteered to help the aid effort. Forced labour, land grabs, torture and rape are common military tactics, often targeting ordinary civilians going about their daily affairs.

The continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi is a fitting symbol of the years of neglect and mistreatment of the Burmese people.

If these acts of political bastardry don't suffice as a pointer to the Burmese military's true intentions, it should be remembered that in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, the Government was more concerned with conducting a sham referendum to legimitise constitutional changes that shored up the military's power base. Those who opposed the process were summarily locked up.

During this period, the infamous Law 5/96 was regularly invoked. This law imposes a maximum prison term of 20 years for so much as discussing the constitution.

Without a democratic and accountable government, aid work will remain underdone and over-exploited. Without international monitors, money from international donors will continue to be wasted or, worse, scurrilously diverted.

Unfortunately, while ASEAN has achieved something worthwhile in persuading Burma to ratify its human rights charter, the victory rings hollow, as hollow as the roar of a vastpaper tiger over the broken Irrawaddy Delta.

Thaung Htun is the representative for UN affairs at the Burma UN Service Office of Burma's government-in-exile.

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