Cowardice of Silence
When I phoned Aung San Suu Kyi's home in Rangoon yesterday, I imagined the path to her door that looks down on Inya Lake. Through ragged palms, a trip-wire is visible, a reminder that this is the prison of a woman whose party was elected by a landslide in 1990, a democratic act extinguished by men in ludicrous uniforms. Her phone rang and rang; I doubt if it is connected now. Once, in response to my "How are you?" she laughed about her piano's need of tuning. She also spoke about lying awake, breathless, listening to the thumping of her heart.
Now her silence is complete. This week, the Burmese junta renewed her house arrest, beginning the 13th year. As far as I know, a doctor has not been allowed to visit her since January, and her house was badly damaged in the cyclone. And yet the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, could not bring himself to utter her name on his recent, grovelling tour of Burma. It is as if her fate and that of her courageous supporters, who on Tuesday beckoned torture and worse merely by unfurling the banners of her National League for Democracy, have become an embarrassment for those who claim to represent the "international community". Why?
Where are the voices of those in governments and their related institutions who know how to help Burma? Where are the honest brokers who once eased the oppressed away from their shadows, the true and talented peacemakers who see societies not in terms of their usefulness to "interests" but as victims of it? Where are the Dennis Hallidays and Hans von Sponecks who rose to assistant secretary-general of the UN by the sheer moral force of their international public service?
The answer is simple. They are all but extinguished by a virus called the "war on terror". Where once men and women of good heart and good intellect and good faith stood in parliaments and world bodies in defence of the human rights of others, there is now cowardice. Think of the parliament at Westminster, which cannot even cajole itself into holding an inquiry into the criminal invasion of Iraq, let alone to condemn it and speak up for its victims. Last year, 100 eminent British doctors pleaded with the minister for international development, then Hilary Benn, for emergency medical aid to be sent to Iraqi children's hospitals: "Babies are dying for want of a 95 pence oxygen mask," they wrote. The minister turned them down flat.
I mention that because medical aid for children is exactly the kind of assistance the British government now insists the Burmese junta should accept without delay. "There are people suffering in Burma," said an indignant Gordon Brown. "There are children going without food ... it is utterly unacceptable that when international aid is offered, the regime will try to prevent that getting in." David Miliband chimed in with "malign neglect". Say that to the children of Iraq and Afghanistan and Gaza, where Britain's role is as neglectful and malign as any. As scores of children in Shia areas of Baghdad are blown to bits by America and what the BBC calls Iraq's "democratic government", the British are silent, as ever. "We" say nothing while Israel torments and starves the children of Gaza, ignoring every attempt to bring a ceasefire with Hamas, all in the name of a crusade that dares not say its name. What might have been a new day for humanity in the post-cold war years, even a renewal of the spirit of the Declaration of Human Rights, of "never again" from Palestine to Burma, was cancelled by the ambitions of a sole rapacious power that has cowed all. The "war on terror" allows Australia and Israel to train Burma's internal security thugs. It consumes both most humanitarian aid indirectly and the very internationalism capable of bringing the "clever" pressure on Burma, about which Aung San Suu Kyi once spoke.
Dismissing the idiocy of a military intervention in her country, she asked: "What about all those who trade with the generals, who give them many millions of dollars that keep them going?" She was referring to the huge oil and gas companies, Total and Chevron, which effectively hand the regime $2.7bn a year, and the Halliburton company (former chief executive Vice-President Dick Cheney) that backed the construction of the Yadana pipeline, and the British travel companies that send tourists across bridges and roads built with forced labour. Audley Travel promotes its Burma holidays in the Guardian. The BBC, in contravention of its charter, has just bought 75% of Lonely Planet travel guides, a truculent defender of "our" right to be tourists in Burma regardless of slave labour, or cyclones, or the woman beyond the trip-wire. Shame.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008