Gordon Brown's Strange Silence on Burma

One would hope that his admiration for Suu Kyi would be accompanied by tangible support.

Today, halfway around the world, a 62-year-old woman sits alone in her home, as she has for years. Her telephone line is disconnected. Her doorbell never rings because visitors are forbidden. There is no mail. There is no news.

For Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Burma and world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, there is almost complete isolation. She has spent more than 12 of the past 17 years under house arrest since her National League for Democracy and its allies won a landslide 82 per cent of the seats in Burma's 1990 parliamentary elections. They were never allowed to take power.

This month marks the 19th anniversary of Burma's democracy uprising, when thousands of people took to the streets demanding freedom and democracy. The regime responded with bullets, and thousands were massacred, ushering in an era of even worse repression.

Since 1996, the junta has destroyed more than 3,000 villages in a relentless campaign of killing, torture and rape against ethnic minorities. More than one million refugees have fled the country and 600,000 internally displaced people struggle to subsist in jungle conditions. Some 800,000 people are used as forced labour and the country has tens of thousands of child soldiers. Even worse, as Burma disintegrates, its decay - including heroin, methamphetamines and strains of HIV - seeps into neighbouring countries.

With the atrocities mounting, the international community has, in fits and starts, tried to press for peace in Burma. Unfortunately, however, there has been no unified approach and the military junta has exploited this reality to preserve its tenuous grip on power.

In recent years, the UK has played a leading role in pressing for democratic change in Burma, in close partnership with the US. Yet in the three months since Gordon Brown has become Prime Minister, he has been quiet on the topic of Burma. No doubt his focus has been on other things. But in just a few weeks in office, French President Nicholas Sarkozy's government managed to both secure the release of the six Bulgarian medics from Libya and announce its intention to press for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mr Brown's silence is especially surprising because one would hope that his admiration for Suu Kyi - in his book Courage: Eight Portraits, he described her as a true hero for our times - would be accompanied by tangible support for her cause. Thankfully, Mr Brown has time to act, but he needs to act now. British leadership is necessary to break the international stalemate on Burma.

First, he should speak out publicly and repeatedly about the need for action in Burma - freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners, national reconciliation, and action by China and India to play a constructive role in resolving the conflict - rather than leaving this task to more junior ministers. One cannot underestimate the importance that this rhetorical support would provide to Burma's embattled democrats and people inside the country.

Second, to ensure that rhetoric is matched by action, the British Government should embrace and support the strong recommendations of the Commons Select Committee on International Development's report on aid to Burma. Specifically, the Committee noted Burma is one of the least-aided countries in the world by Britain. It recommended support should be quadrupled to PS35.2m per year by 2013. In addition, the Committee also recommended the Department for International Development begin funding human rights groups that work across the border to gather evidence on the conditions in the country such as forced labour and rape of ethnic minorities.

And finally the British Government should work closely with the US and France to press for the UN Special Envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to brief the Security Council on his recent trip to Asia. Following that briefing, the British Government should press for specific benchmarks to be set by Mr Gambari for progress to be achieved. For years, the Burmese junta has been blessed by a divided international community. The UK is well positioned to try and bring the international community together to give the Burmese junta no option but reconciliation and a restoration of democracy.

World leaders such as Mr Brown have always been good at praising Aung San Suu Kyi. That is important. But it is also time they listened to what she says: "Please use your liberty to promote ours."

The writer is a solicitor and president of Freedom Now. He currently represents Aung San Suu Kyi.

(c) 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

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