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Burma: World leaders press UN to intervene

NewsNotes, January-February 2009

As Burma’s military government meted out 65-year prison terms in December to 14 nonviolent dissidents, scores of former world leaders urged the UN to press for free and fair elections and for the release of Burma’s political prisoners.

“[S]ooner or later there will be a change in Burma,” says former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik. “I have no doubt at all. It’s only a question of time.”

Bondevik was one of 112 leaders from 50 nations who signed a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Dec. 3. They urged him to visit Burma before the year was out and press the regime to release all of its political prisoners. Ban – who has seen little progress in Burma since his last visit in May – declined, saying he would not make the trip until there was a greater likelihood of success.

Even a visit to press the junta on its political prisoners “is only the first step in the process towards democracy in the country,” Bondevik says. “The next step should be, of course, a real dialogue between the democratic movement, the ethnic groups and the junta, and a new writing of the constitution and elections which must be based on a free and fair platform towards full democracy.”

The junta held a referendum on a new constitution in May 2008 in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. The generals claimed the constitution won 92 percent approval and have scheduled elections in 2010. Meanwhile, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi remains in the junta’s custody. She has spent more than 12 of the past 19 years in detention, mostly under house arrest. Her National League for Democracy won a sweeping victory in 1990 elections, but the winners were not allowed to take office.

“[A]n election now, under these conditions, will not be free and fair because they have made a constitution without engaging and involving the democratic movement,” Bondevik says.  “They have called an election but excluded some very important people from running in the election, among them Aung San Suu Kyi… An election must come after a democratic process where all the main players are included.”

 “I hope that [Ban] will have acceptable conditions for going to the country as soon as possible,” he adds.

The letter to Ban calls for action on Burma by the UN Security Council, whose members China and Russia vetoed an earlier resolution on Burma. “We must … have a dialogue with these key countries in order to convince them that we need a stronger message from the UN,” Bondevik says, adding that he plans to bring the matter up with China during a visit in 2009.

 “[I]t is in the interest of China, and also of countries like India and Russia, to have a development in Burma towards democracy,” he says, “because it’s also a problem for China that you have this situation in a neighboring country like Burma.”

Leaders who signed the letter include Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, John Howard of Australia, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Lech Walesa of Poland, Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia, Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka and the UK’s Tony Blair, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.

The UN estimates at least 31 people were killed when the army fired on peaceful protesters Sept. 26-27, 2007, during the so-called Saffron Revolution, sparking global outrage.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says more than 70 political activists, monks, nuns, journalists and labor activists who participated in the demonstrations were tried or summarily convicted in December in secret trials and closed court hearings. Besides the 14 defendants who drew 65-year terms, the regime sentenced 25 others to up to 26 years’ imprisonment.

Even family members often were not permitted to attend the trials, HRW says. In some cases legal representation was denied, and four defense lawyers were sent to prison for contempt when they protested unfair hearings or tried to withdraw their representation at their clients’ request. 

According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPP), nearly 1,100 dissidents were detained after the 2007 anti-government protests, which were the largest the country had seen in nearly two decades. Hundreds have been sentenced, and many have been transferred to remote prisons, AAPP says. The junta, led by Gen. Than Shwe, is thought to be holding more than 2,000 political prisoners, including nearly 200 women.

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