Aung San Suu Kyi's visit is part of Burma's next task

Mon, Jun 18, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:Bringing change to Burma, where power still rests with the military government, will require active international support, writes COLM O'GORMAN

IN MANY ways it is remarkable how iconic a figure Aung San Suu Kyi is to so many people the world over. Between 1989 and 2010 she spent 15 years under house arrest. Interviews and photographs of her are comparatively rare for a world figure and this is her first visit to Europe in nearly 25 years.

But during the more than two decades she has been fighting for change in Burma/ Myanmar she has become a symbol of hope, courage and implacable determination in the defence of human rights, not only to Burma’s people but to millions around the world.

The changes that have taken place in Burma recently are due largely to her efforts and the way she has ensured the international community was never allowed to forget what was happening to the Burmese people.

An Amnesty International mission to Burma last month, the first allowed since 2003, found substantial improvements. People were freer to express themselves, to speak out, to debate and to organise. Access to independent media has improved.

In a major step forward, between May 2011 and January 2012, the Burmese government released more than 650 political prisoners and reduced the sentences of many others. Many of these former prisoners have told Amnesty they have been relatively free to resume their political activity without harassment or intimidation.

For the first time it is possible to hope the cycle of imprisonment, release and re-arrest has come to an end. Hundreds more remain in prison, however, often in appalling conditions.

Khun Kawrio is a member of the Kayan ethnic group in Burma and was a leading member of Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY). In 2008, KNGY activists campaigned against a new constitution which had been drafted by the government without properly consulting Burma’s large ethnic minority.

Khun Kawrio organised dissidents to release balloons, launch paper boats and spray-paint walls with their peaceful political messages. They were subsequently arrested, tortured and sentenced by the military, without trial, judge or defence. Although two of his colleagues have been released, Khun Kawrio remains in prison, one of a large number of remaining prisoners of conscience.

The prisoner releases are a welcome initiative but the international community needs to encourage the government to accelerate the process. The authorities should provide more information about who they have in detention; prison conditions need to improve; and, most urgently, prisoners of conscience should be released immediately.

There has also been some progress in the relationships between the government and a number of ethnic groups that have often been marked by serious conflict. Ceasefires have been brokered between the army and the various armed groups and where these are holding they have been important in reducing violence against civilians, though the humanitarian needs of those displaced by fighting must be addressed.

But not all of these ceasefires have held. In June 2011 fighting resumed between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Organisation. Kachin civilians have been forced to porter for the army, killed by indiscriminate shelling and had food and property destroyed. Tens of thousands have been displaced. The government must stop abuses against Kachin civilians and grant unfettered access so urgent humanitarian assistance can reach those affected.

Particularly disturbing is the sectarian violence in western Rakhine state between the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic minority and the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, which erupted earlier this month.

The Rohingya have faced widespread repression and discrimination at the hands of the Burmese authorities for decades. As the violence continues, an unknown number of people have been killed in the western state and with at least 60,000 newly displaced persons the humanitarian situation is grave. As with Burma’s prisons, the International Committee of the Red Cross should be given unfettered access to these areas.

The international donor community needs to continue to help, so long as it is satisfied the humanitarian aid is being distributed in a transparent and appropriate way. After the country was devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the government used its control of food and aid to reward or punish communities depending on the extent of their support for the new constitution.

Though these problems remain, we should not lose sight of the progress made, or the woman responsible for so much of it.

Today, the people of Ireland have an opportunity to show their support and appreciation to a woman who has, with limitless compassion, put the needs of her people before anything else.

But her visit today, and the rest of her tour of Europe, is also about ensuring support for the Burmese struggle for democracy and human rights from the international community is continued and strengthened. Although her party is now represented in parliament and she is the elected leader of the opposition, power still fundamentally rests with the military government.

Changing this will require not just the patience and determination of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people, it will need the active support of governments and international organisations.

Her release from prison and the changes in Burma are not the end of a struggle: they are the beginning of a new one.

Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland

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