A Burmese political exile recently asked me with despair in her voice, ‘how can we get the international community to take action against the regime in Burma?’ She had been forced to leave Burma when still a child because her village had been attacked by soldiers. She joined hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees in camps on the Thailand-Burma border. Most of them are from the Karen ethnic minority, who face a policy of ethnic cleansing by the brutal junta. Rape is used as a weapon of war against women and children, hundreds of thousands have been used as forced labour by the army, and more than 3,000 villages destroyed in the past 10 years.
While in Burma, she had thought that the reason the atrocities continued was because the world didn’t know what was going on. On arriving in Thailand she was horrified to learn that governments did know what as going on, but were doing nothing about it.
I too, have sometimes felt despair as I have watched the international community look the other way as the regime continues its atrocities. Aung San Suu Kyi, the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate, has now spent almost 12 of the past 18 years in detention.
Perhaps what is most frustrating is that this regime is vulnerable to pressure, if it were only applied. It depends on international trade and investment for its survival. Most of its revenue comes from exports of gas, timber and gems, with clothing exports and tourism also important sources of foreign exchange. Effective sanctions targeted at these sectors would deal a serious blow to the regime, without hurting most ordinary Burmese people, and it is, after all, the Burmese people who are asking for these sanctions.
Although the British government has been sympathetic in words, it has failed to take effective action. There is nothing to stop British companies investing in Burma, and there are no trade sanctions to stop imports. We do have an arms embargo, but in effect we are saying to the regime ‘we won’t sell you guns, but we’ll give you the money so you can buy them elsewhere.’ I am sometimes told that there is no point in the UK unilaterally banning investment or trade, as they will only do business with China instead. But if you follow the logic of that argument, we’d be selling them guns as well.
The government would prefer Europe-wide sanctions, but France vetoes sanctions by the European Union because of investment in Burma by French oil giant Total Oil. We cannot have British foreign policy held hostage to the commercial interests of a single French oil company. The UK must take the lead and introduce unilateral sanctions to ban new investment in Burma, and stop key imports, such as timber, gems and clothing.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent personal pledge to raise Burma with his European counterparts is exactly what is needed to break the current paralysis of action in the European Union. We saw how effective Brown can be in getting results when he used a combination of cajoling and unilateral action to get international agreement to cancel the debt of the world’s poorest countries.
In echoes of the 1988 uprising, when thousands were massacred, activists are once more taking to the streets of Burma, risking imprisonment and torture to demand their freedom. They are calling for and deserve our support. Is our government happy to allow British companies to pay for the guns that might be used to shoot them? Why is the Labour party the only major party in the UK that does not support a unilateral ban on new investment in Burma?
My answer to that political exile today would be to say that the international community can be forced to take action, but that it is up to progressive members of the Labour party to demand that our party and our government do so. The ball is in our court.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.