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So far, March has been a bad month for those countries and so-called Burma experts who advocate for a softer line with Burma’s generals. First were the admissions by the US that its engagement policy was going nowhere; then came the publication of election laws in Burma that don’t give the slightest concession to calls that elections this year be free and fair; and finally the recommendations by the UN special rapporteur on Burma that there be a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by the dictatorship. The true nature of Than Shwe and the general’s around him has been revealed again.
The argument over what the international community should do about the situation in our country has grown in recent years. What has surprised me is how badly informed that debate has been, and how willing some people and countries are to turn a blind eye to the reality of what is going in my country. Some people are even worse, playing down the human rights abuses and trying to put a positive spin on the actions of the generals.
What governments and the UN have consistently failed to do is to look at the true nature of the people ruling Burma. Only when you understand them and what they do can you work out how to deal with them.
As a Karen woman growing up in eastern Burma I know this true nature first-hand. I have seen the bodies of villagers and farmers, met the women who have been raped and the orphans whose parents were killed. Like thousands of others I have had to flee for my life as mortar bombs exploded in my village, fired at civilians without warning. Now, finally, the UN’s own Burma expert has described these as possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The international community, especially the UN, prefers to ignore what is happening to ethnic people in eastern Burma. Instead they focus on Rangoon and Naypyidaw, and on topics like who gets to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, or can someone repair the roof of her house; but what political significance does that have? When decisions on what to do about the crisis in Burma descend to such ridiculous things, I sometimes feel despair.
And even when the abuses happen right in front of them, how short their memories are. The massacre of thousands in 1988, the crushing of student protests in the mid-1990s, and the firing on monks in 2007, all seem forgotten. The generals defy the UN, draft a constitution that legalises dictatorship, and still the UN and others tell us to wait and see: perhaps they’ll change their mind so let’s wait for election laws, they say.
Now the election laws have been published and of course they are not fair. Did they forget that these are the generals who refused to accept the results of elections in 1990? Have the generals given any indication that they are genuinely interested in reform of the welfare of the people? None at all. It is less than two years since they were prepared to let thousands die in the delta after cyclone Nargis, rather than accept international aid. It is only three weeks since they fired a mortar bomb at a school in Karen state, killing one child and injuring two more.
They still have more than 2,100 political prisoners in jail, and arrest more daily. How clear do the generals have to make it before the international community understands that they are not interested in reform? The nature of these generals is to stay in power. They were brought up under the Tatmadaw [Burmese army] slogan: One Blood, One Voice, One Command. They gained their rank fighting ethnic people, and using the Four Cuts policy where civilians are deliberately targeted, where babies were put in rice pounders and crushed to death, and where women and children were raped as part of official government policy. Even girls as young as five have been raped.
When diplomats and so-called experts sit down with those generals in Rangoon and Naypyidaw and think that somehow they will be the one who will negotiate a breakthrough, remember the true nature of the people you are dealing with. Don’t be fooled by the smiles and plush buildings. The generals you shake hands with are brutal killers. Even the UN’s own expert says responsibility for the abuses in Burma go right to the top. They are not diplomats or politicians, they are soldiers. The generals will never, ever, negotiate themselves out of power unless they are forced to do so.
They are, however, good at playing games with an international community that seems desperate to believe their lies. So within the next few days or weeks we can expect some new so-called concessions from the generals, perhaps letting opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party leaders meet Aung San Suu Kyi, or the release of a high profile political prisoner. Once again we will see governments and others attach imaginary significance to this, still ignoring the true nature of the people they are dealing with.
Zoya Phan is international coordinator at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography, ‘Undaunted’, will be published in hardback in the US in May, and published as ‘Little Daughter’ in paperback in the UK in May.