On the 20th anniversary of the 1990 elections in Burma, some of the many Canadian
friends of Burma are here to protest its unelected, illegitimate and brutal military
regime. We call on the junta to step down, hold fair elections, and free Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 2000 other political prisoners. The Burmese peoples deserve peace, self government and the rule of law!
“Please use your liberty to help promote ours”, pleads Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, who is one
of the world’s most admired leaders.
According to Human Rights Watch (which provided most of the following content) and other observers, human dignity continued to deteriorate across Burma last year. The junta denies freedom of expression, association and assembly. It continues to commit violations against civilians in conflict areas, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor and sexual violence.
In mid-May 2009, Suu Kyi and two household staff were arrested on charges that she breached terms of her house arrest by permitting the intrusion of an American. The Kafka-like trial dragged on for three months. On August 11, she was found guilty and sentenced to three years' hard labour. The Home Affairs minister quickly read out a letter from the President, declaring the sentences would be commuted to 18 months' house arrest.
Prisoners of Conscience
The men and women arrested in 2007 and 2008 were sentenced by "trials" in closed courts. In 2009, the regime declared two prisoner amnesties, releasing 6,313 prisoners in February and 7,114 more in September. Only 31 of those released in February and an estimated 130 released in September were political prisoners. An estimated 2100 political prisoners remain incarcerated.
The arrests of human rights defenders and National League for Democracy (NLD)
supporters continue. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is denied
access to Burmese prisons.
Buddhist monks throughout Burma suspected of anti-junta activity are closely monitored by the authorities to deter monk-led protests. More than 230 monks involved in the 2007 protests remain in prison.
In May 2009, army attacks displaced thousands of civilians and forced an estimated 5,000 refugees into Thailand. In July attacks in 39 villages in central Shan State displaced an estimated 10,000 civilians.
Sexual violence against women and girls, extrajudicial killings, forced labour, torture,
beatings, and confiscation of land and property are widespread. The army and related
groups continue to use antipersonnel landmines to target food production.
There are now an estimated half-million internally displaced persons in eastern Burma.
140,000 refugees remain in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border. More than
50,000 refugees from Chin state remain in eastern India; 28,000 ethnic Rohingya
Muslims live in appalling camps in Bangladesh. Millions of refugees live in
Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia and are subject to human trafficking. Thousands of ethnic Rohingya from western Burma and Bangladesh made perilous journeys by sea to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia in late 2008 and early 2009.
The junta continues its forced recruitment of child soldiers. In June (2009), the
U N Security Council working group on children and armed conflict released
its report on Burma, calling on the regime to end the culture of impunity for the forcible recruitment of child soldiers.
The regime now accrues billions of dollars annually in natural gas sales, but little is
used for health and livelihood programs. Parts of the country remain off-limits to
humanitarian relief organizations, or with tight controls imposed.
The EU, US, Australia, and ASEAN criticized the trial of Suu Kyi and called for her
immediate release. On June 16, five special rapporteurs of the U N Human Rights
Council issued a joint statement that the trial violated substantive and procedural rights.
In August, the EU imposed new targeted sanctions, including extending its assets freeze
to enterprises owned and controlled by junta members.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited in July and met with the junta, but was denied permission to visit Suu Kyi. He gave a speech in Rangoon, deploring the human rights situation and asking the regime to work with the international community on seeking political change and humanitarian development.
Ban's special advisor on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, visited Burma three times in 2009.
In September, the "Group of Friends of Burma" met during UN General Assembly
proceedings in New York and reiterated its call for the regime to work with the UN on
substantive change. China’s UN rep blocked formal discussion of Burma in the Security Council in October.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, made a five-day tour. He was allowed to meet with government-screened political prisoners. Quintana's report to the UN General Assembly called for the regime "to take prompt measures to establish accountability and responsibility with regard to the widespread and systematic human rights violations reported in Burma."
In February, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an official review of US
policy toward Burma. The review was released in October, with the US retaining existing
trade, investment, and targeted financial sanctions, but announcing a new diplomatic engagement.
ASEAN in 2009 made several criticisms of the junta and called for Suu Kyi's release,
particularly in a strongly-worded statement issued by Thailand as the ASEAN chair. Unfortunately, ASEAN members Singapore, Vietnam, and Laos continued to support Burma internationally. China and Russia to their shame also continue to provide diplomatic support.
China, Thailand, and India are major trade and investment partners. In March, Chinese
officials secured an agreement with Burma to construct a pipeline to transport natural
gas from western Burma to China. Sales of natural gas continue to account for the
largest share of the regime revenue. The Kokang fighting on China's border prompted a rare public rebuke from China, however, which said the junta had "harmed the rights and interests of Chinese citizens…”
Amnesty International is campaigning globally on the upcoming election, focusing particularly on three fundamental freedoms -- of expression, assembly and association. The widespread violations of freedoms of expression, association and assembly in the context of the election are deeply troubling. Amnesty is calling on all governments publicly to acknowledge the need to protect these rights and to use their offices to persuade the Burmese government to take action in protecting them.
In Amnesty’s view, an election is the rights associated with voting -- i.e. freedom of expression, association and assembly -- that are crucial. They are already under attack by the junta through legislation (in the 2008 constitution and the recent election laws) and will likely also be attacked in practice as well. Amnesty thinks it likely that these rights will culminate in greater violations, both in gravity and in quantity. If the three fundamental rights are protected, they will help realize other endangered rights. That does not mean Amnesty does not call for other rights also to be protected, but it has chosen to prioritize publicly these three in its upcoming global campaign.
In short, all of us here today, and many more across Canada and the world, care deeply about all the peoples of Burma. We have the greatest respect for Dawn Aung San Suu Kyi and all others struggling for dignity across the land. They need an elected government of, by and for all members of the Burmese family. Only such governance will allow them to realize their hopes and dreams.