Sanctions against Burmese junta would support human rights

Maureen Aung-Thwin [Director, Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative, Open Society Institute]: "The Burmese military junta crossed a line when they killed the monks. When thousands of maroon-robed monks led peaceful protests across Burma against the 500% overnight increase in fuel prices, there was hope that the military would respond with restraint. Instead, the whole world watched in horror at the violent images of fully armed soldiers beating up and humiliating the most revered figures in Buddhist Burma. The question is: how will it end?

The psychological fall-out from the abuse of the monks is immeasurable. Yet, in hindsight, we may look back to this terrible episode as the catalyst for a power shift, leading perhaps to genuine political transformation. The official government line blames the protests on bogus monks alleged to be agents of the CIA. But now it appears even the generals' sense that this time, they have gone too far. Some military officials have been quick to offer alms to monks who dare not refuse the gifts, as earlier they had, turning over their begging bowls as a sign of rejecting supplicants who belonged to the armed forces. (However, the spirit of protest has not been totally quashed; some monks grudgingly accept the alms, before dumping them on the floor of the monastery).

Likewise, recent events have led to a shift in international policy towards Burma, at least temporarily. The global community was outraged by the real-time video clips of the brutal crackdown sent through the internet by foreign and citizen journalists. The United Nations Security Council, where earlier this year China and Russia vetoed a draft resolution on Burma, issued a rare, unanimously adopted presidential statement condemning the actions of the junta. At the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, every member, even the junta's usual allies such as Cuba, chastised the regime. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers, normally loath to interfere in internal affairs of its member nations, used unusually strong words in issuing the following statement:

"[The ministers] were appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used and demanded that the Myanmar government immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators. They expressed their revulsion to Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win over reports that the demonstrations in Myanmar are being suppressed by violent force and that there has been a number of fatalities. They strongly urged Myanmar to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution."

But do the Burmese generals give a hoot what the world says about them? Possibly. The regime was swift to name a savvy, senior colleague to start meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the long detained leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. Further, it agreed to a return visit by the UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, as well as one by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the Human Rights Council's Special Rapporteur on Myanmar who has been refused a Burmese visa for the last four years. Notably, Pinheiro insists that if denied access to anyone he wishes to see inside Burma, he will immediately head for the airport.

Expressions of outrage are important, but ultimately actions that are aimed at disrupting the regime and its cronies' stranglehold on the country's economy will force them to the negotiating table. Through banking and financial sanctions, The United States and Australian governments are successfully targeting individual military officers and business cronies who for decades have milked the resource-rich country for personal gain. If more nations join in smart, targeted sanctions, the sooner the long suffering citizens of Burma can claim back their country."

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