||With an eye to its vast Asian market, Europe promotes human rights when
the price is right. In Burma, crimes against humanity are allowed to
continue without challenge.
I tried to phone her the other day. I still have a number she gave me,
which I could call infrequently to exchange a few words. It was
fruitless to try this time; the hurried click at the other end was an
echo of her Kafkaesque oppression. The isolation of Aung San Suu Kyi is
now complete, in the tenth year of her detention. The last time I got
through, I asked her what was happening outside her house. "Oh, the road
is blocked and there are soldiers all over the street . . . for my own
security, of course!"
She thanked me for the books I had sent her, hand-carried through the
underground that now struggles to maintain contact. "It has been a joy
to read widely again," she said. I had sent her a collection of her
favourite T S Eliot, as well as Jonathan Coe's political novel What a
Carve Up!, whose gentle irony must have seemed strange in jackbooted
Rangoon. She told me she relished biographies of those who had also
suffered through isolation: Mandela, Sakharov. Litt le has reached her
since then, and it is not known if she still has her old Grundig
shortwave radio. The regime has now removed her personal security guards
from her compound beside Inya Lake. Having tortured and killed her
closest allies, they must believe that, if the world looks the other
way, they can do the same to her.
"For the media, Burma is seldom fashionable," she told me. "But the
important thing to remember about a struggle like ours is that it
endures, whether or not the spotlight is on, and it can't be turned
back." For one so alone, these are salutary words; I recommend them to
those who lose heart when their participation in one demonstration fails
to stop an invasion. Fortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy
movement she leads are supported by a tenacious solidarity network
throughout the world; and I am indebted to John Jackson and Yvette Mahon
of the Burma Campaign UK for never letting us forget that, if the often
debased cry of democracy means anyt hing, its true test is Burma. In the
current issue of Metta, the campaign's journal, Desmond Tutu reminds us
that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy,
won 82 per cent of the parliamentary seats in Burma's 1990 election, the
signal for a military junta to hunt, imprison, torture and murder the
victors, and enslave much of the nation. "Suu Kyi and the people of
Burma," writes Tutu, "have not called for a military coalition to invade
their country. They have simply asked for the maximum diplomatic and
economic pressure against Burma's brutal dictators."
As the public's response to the tsunami and the invasion of Iraq has
shown, the fastest-growing division in the world is between people and
those in power claiming to act morally in their name. Burma exemplifies
this. Take the European Union's disgusting policy. Clearly with an eye
to its vast Asian market, the EU, promoter of "human rights" when the
price is right, has shamelessly appeased the Bur mese junta. Consider
what happens in Burma today. Rape is used as a weapon of the state
against indigenous women and children. Forced labour is widespread,
described by the UN's International Labour Organisation as a "crime
against humanity". The junta holds more than 1,350 political prisoners,
many of whom are routinely tortured. Up to a million people have been
forced from their land. Half the national budget is spent on a brutal,
peacock military whose only enemy is its own people, while next to
nothing is spent on health; one in ten Burmese babies dies in infancy.
And the true leader, elected in a landslide, is incarcerated, rising at
four o'clock every morning to meditate on such an epic injustice.
Meanwhile, the EU shores up the regime by increasing imports, worth
roughly $4bn between 1998 and 2002. Last October, the fifth summit of
the 38-state Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) was held in Hanoi and attended
by representatives of the junta for the first time. Instead of an
nouncing a boycott, the Europeans turned up and said nothing. Rather,
France's president, Jacques Chirac, said he hoped stronger sanctions
would not be necessary because they "will hurt the poorest people". For
"poorest people" read Total Oil Company, part-owned by the French
government, the largest foreign investor in Burma, where the oil
companies' infrastructure of roads and railway access has long been the
subject of allegations of forced labour. Total's euros allow the junta
to re-equip its state of fear. "None of the EU officials I have met,"
says John Jackson, "denies that foreign investment and military spending
in Burma are closely linked. In the week the regime received its first
payment for gas due to be piped to Thailand from a gas field operated by
Total Oil, it made a $130m down payment on ten MiG-29 jet fighters."
Jackson points to the farce of present EU sanctions. After as many as
100 of Suu Kyi's supporters were publicly beaten to death by soldiers in
2003, the EU e xtended its visa ban to the junta and Germany froze no
less than E86 ($112) of German-based Burmese assets.
In contrast, and through direct action, the international campaign has
chalked up major disinvestments, such as Premier Oil, Heineken, PepsiCo
and Bhs. The current "dirty list" of investors includes the oil
companies Total and Unocal, Rolls-Royce, Lloyd's of London and so-called
prestige travel companies such as Bales, Road to Mandalay and Orient
Express. The bestselling Lonely Planet guidebook is a fixture on the
list. Lonely Planet has long made a fool of itself by claiming, in the
words of one of its writers, that Burma is "better off" today, and that
although the junta is "abominable", "political imprisonment, torture"
and "involuntary civilian service to the state" are not new and "have
been around for centuries".
Tell that to the people of Pagan, the ancient capital, which used to
have a population of 4,000. They were given a few weeks to leave, their
homes were bulldozed, and the people were marched at gunpoint to a
waterless stubble that is a dustbowl in the summer, and runs with mud in
the winter. Their dispossession was to make way for foreign tourists. "I
shall welcome tourists and investors," said Aung San Suu Kyi, "when we
are free." There is an abundance of evidence that foreign tourism has
benefited the regime, not the Burmese people, and that much of the
tourist infrastructure was built with "involuntary civilian service" -
an idiotic euphemism for bonded or outright slave labour.
Filming secretly in Burma nine years ago, I came upon what might have
been a tableau from Dickensian England. Near the town of Tavoy, in the
south, gangs of people were building a railway viaduct, guarded by
soldiers. These were slave labourers, and many were children. I watched
one small girl in a long blue dress struggle to wield a hoe taller than
herself, falling back exhausted, in pain, holding her shoulder. "How old
are you?" I asked her. "Eleven," came the reply.
Just as we should not forget the people of Fallujah and Najaf and
Baghdad, and Ramallah and Gaza, so we should not forget this little
girl, and her people, and their leader, who ask for the most basic
rights and deserve our support.