Contact: Roland Watson, roland@dictatorwatch.org


21 July 2004

Dictator Watch has interviewed David Tharckabaw, head of the Karen National Union Information Department, about the positions of the United Nations and the European Union towards Burma.

The United Nations has a moral obligation to intercede in Burma because of the widespread, severe and systematic commission of human rights violations by the ruling regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

This extends to a legal or organizational responsibility, because the dictatorship is a major contributor to regional instability and hence international instability. Burma lies at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, and it borders China. It is the central point in the most populated region of the world. It is the leading source of narcotics, is heavily involved in the proliferation of arms, and is causing massive forced migration, throughout the region. It is even arguable that its behavior, particularly the campaign of "4 Cuts" against the Karen and the other ethnic nationalities of the country, rises to the level of genocide.

In late June, the KNU sent a private communication to Kofi Annan requesting that he make the problems inside and emanating from Burma a major agenda item for the U.N. The Secretary-General should ensure that the need for, and the means to accomplish, a democratic transition in Burma is aggressively considered in both the Security Council and the General Assembly. The United Nations must do more than pass non-binding resolutions.

The KNU are specifically calling for:

- An international arms embargo against the SPDC.
- U.N. implementation of the sanctions already imposed by the U.S., including targeted sanctions against the natural resources trade out of Burma (timber, minerals and natural gas, and marine products).
- Expulsion of Burma from the General Assembly until such time as the democratically-elected government of the country, the National League for Democracy, is able to send representatives.

The KNU has yet to receive a response to its communication. Further, on 15 July, the KNU leaders met a deputy of Kofi Annan in Mae Sot. This individual had not heard of the communication, and responded dismissively that many such letters have been received in New York. (Dictator Watch note: Apparently, sending a letter to Kofi Annan has the same effect as sending a petition to Senior General Than Shwe - none whatsoever.)

The usual response from the UN personnel, in the past and at the present, is that Burma could not be considered in the Security Council because the forum is reserved for threats to international security and peace, and also because action in the Council requires a sponsoring state. For the first, this is a narrow definition of responsibility. "International peace" apparently means "world peace," in the sense that a nation, to be considered, must constitute a threat approximate to that of Germany under Hitler.

This is a bureaucratic excuse - a way to avoid responsibility. The SPDC are a threat to international security and peace. Similarly, the statement that a member nation must raise the issue in the Security Council, while technically correct, is also a bureaucratic response. It suggests that the deliberations of member states and UN officials occur in isolation. Apparently, in the U.N. free discourse between nations is discouraged and the Secretary-General personally feels powerless to initiate action on critical issues.

However, there is now a major emphasis on the Darfur region of the Sudan, which has been termed the "world's worst humanitarian crisis." For Darfur, the initiation of Security Council proceedings and even sanctions is being widely debated.

What is the difference between the Sudan and Burma? The ethnic cleansing in Burma is also a major humanitarian crisis. Is the United Nations only able to address one crisis at a time, the one it considers to be the worst? Must the effort to secure peace and democracy in Burma be delayed until there is peace and democracy in the Sudan?

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland has commented: "We are late on Darfur. We have to admit that." The U.N. is very late on Burma.

Similarly, the European Union has moral grounds to support democracy in Burma and to work to halt the perpetration of human rights abuses. Europe should understand, given its own experience of ultranationalism run amok and which caused so much death and destruction, that engagement with the SPDC will not work. The dictatorship must be fought with the strongest possible means.

For the Karen people of Burma, for all the people of Burma, at an absolute minimum the E.U. should not participate in ASEM if any officials of the SPDC attend. The E.U. should also strengthen and expand its sanctions, and call for U.N. Security Council proceedings.

The main argument that the SPDC use to justify their rule is that only they can prevent the disintegration of the nation. This is not true. Those individuals and groups who speak of independence are responding to the extreme persecution to which they are subject. They cannot survive in Burma under the SPDC, hence they must have independence. It is the SPDC that is splitting the country apart.

Also, when the dictatorship falls, there will not be a power vacuum. The National League for Democracy, which has the support of the overwhelming majority of the people (and which has also called for Security Council proceedings), is ready to take its rightful place as the democratically elected government of Burma.