Jody Williams

Another Crackdown in Burma

The detention of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her political party by the military government of Burma on May 30 does not bode well for democracy in that country. The violence surrounding their detention, in which party activists were killed and others injured, is particularly chilling.

On February 18, I met with Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon. It was the first successful visit of another Nobel Peace Laureate with Suu Kyi since she was awarded the Peace Prize in 1991. We talked about the situation in her country since she had been freed from house arrest in May 2002 and our discussions are borne by recent events.

With her May release, there had been hope that it would signal steps toward a democratic government in Burma. But in our meeting, she talked about the fact that there had been no dialogue between her party and the State Peace And Development Council (SPDC), the military regime that clings to power. In our discussions then about the continuing stalemate, Aung San Suu Kyi was absolutely clear that "there is no way for the SPDC to escape dialogue" if there is to be a peaceful transition to democracy in her country. Not only has the stalemate continued, but now also violence has been inflicted on her and her party by the military regime.

Even before this latest attack on democracy activists by the SPDC, the junta had been increasing its harassment of Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) members. In those first 10 months after her release from house arrest, there were arrests of about 60 new political prisoners, some of whom received long prison terms. An estimated 1,400 political prisoners still remained in detention and there had been no releases since November 2002. Even in February, Suu Kyi had noted that the regime had stepped up its propaganda attacks against the NLD in the press and had launched a "pamphlet campaign" slandering her even as she still remained "free" to move about the country.

Suu Kyi's May trip to the north of Burma was to mark the one-year anniversary of her release from house arrest. Apparently, the SPDC could no longer tolerate her work to revive democracy in Burma particularly because of the size and enthusiasm of the crowds of her supporters who were coming out to hear her speak -- and violently removed her from the public eye. The anti-democracy crackdown has continued with the junta detaining several more NLD leaders since Suu Kyi's capture as well as ordering the arrest of even more.

It is not enough to call for the junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other detained members of her party immediately. This is a bare minimum. International pressure must be increased on the SPDC to engage in full and open dialogue with Suu Kyi and the NLD for transition to democracy in the shortest term possible. It has been thirteen years since the NLD won overwhelmingly in national elections in Burma. It has been 13 years since the military dictatorship has been imposing its oppressive regime on the people of Burma after overthrowing the results of those democratic elections.

In our February meeting, Suu Kyi was clear that her party was unflinching in its continued call for the strengthening of economic sanctions against the military junta, that all outside investment should cease in the country and and tourists should not give their money to the dictatorship by visiting Burma until democracy is established in that country.

The international community must do more support democracy in Burma. The US government has been a vocal critic of the Burmese junta and the recent passage by the Senate of legislation to strengthen sanctions against the regime should now be passed by the House and signed into law. Likewise, the UK, another strong supporter of democracy in Burma, should work to strengthen economic sanctions against the junta by all EU member states.

Too many of Burma's Asian neighbors have argued that the best route to change in that country is through "constructive engagement." But the people who are living and struggling on a daily basis to bring democracy to Burma -- Suu Kyi and the democracy movement -- express no doubt about the need for continued and stepped up internal and international pressure to bring about change in the country. Burma's neighbors, instead of increasingly engaging with the SPDC regime, should firmly support the democracy movement in the country by both word and action.

It was the international isolation and economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa that helped the internal forces of that country force change and bring democracy to that nation. The international community must unite in applying effective pressure on the Burmese dictatorship -- politically and economically -- until it cedes power to those who earned it legitimately at the ballot box.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1997) Jody Williams founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, for which she is now campaign ambassador.

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