This week, on the other side of the world, a 62-year-old woman marks 12 years of sitting alone in her home. The telephone is silent because the line is disconnected. The doorbell never rings because visitors are forbidden. There is no mail or news. For our client, Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Myanmar and Nobel Peace laureate, little has changed for years - there is almost complete isolation.
It has been more than a month since the world witnessed tens of thousands of Buddhist monks in saffron robes marching in solidarity with the Burmese people, protesting the military junta in that country. And yet, with a brutal crackdown, nightly curfews and a series of late-night police raids, the junta has reclaimed control. An ominous, Orwellian calm has descended.
The crackdown triggered widespread condemnation in the international community, notably from the U.N. Security Council. Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said it was "appalled" at reports of violence against unarmed civilians, and the United States and European Union tightened sanctions on the military regime. But much more is needed, and the United States should lead the way.
Despite its recent pronouncements, the international community has been painfully slow to demand that Myanmar's junta enter into an irreversible process of national reconciliation and democratization. Indeed, many have forgotten that Ms. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and its allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in the country's parliamentary elections. And the world has stood idly by as the military junta has burned 3,000 villages to the ground in eastern Myanmar, creating more than 1 million refugees and 600,000 internally displaced persons.
It is our obligation to stand in solidarity with the Burmese people, to stem the junta's abuses and help restore democracy to their country.
In response to international pressure in the wake of the crackdown, junta leader Gen. Than Shwe allowed U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to make an emergency visit to the country. State media quoted the general as saying that if Ms. Suu Kyi agreed to renounce her call for sanctions and abandoned her "confrontational" approach, he would agree to meet with her.
Regime apologists - including some academics, trade groups and nongovernmental organizations - and those diplomats who like to hail form over substance immediately seized on this statement as an important step forward. But by itself, this is no breakthrough. It is the same offer that has been on the table for years: If Ms. Suu Kyi and her allies unilaterally surrender, thereby giving up any leverage that they have, the junta will be willing to meet with her. And this message was delivered as Ms. Suu Kyi and virtually every other political leader with whom negotiations would need to take place is dead, in exile or imprisoned in Myanmar.
We cannot speak on our client's behalf because she is held incommunicado and we do not know her views. But it seems to us that any dialogue must be held without conditions. To achieve this goal, the U.N. Security Council needs to adopt a binding resolution calling for the junta to work with the United Nations on a plan for national reconciliation in the country, urging open access to the country for the provision of humanitarian relief, and demanding the release of all political prisoners. Despite the fact that such a resolution would be nonpunitive, it would be a tall order for the Security Council, where China and Russia vetoed a similar resolution in January. But the situation has changed, and Myanmar's allies are on the defensive.
It is up to the United States and others to publicly explain how the oppression of the Burmese people continues and why the junta's defenders are culpable for its behavior. Only then will China and Russia be persuaded to stand aside. Without the pressure generated by a united international community, General Than Shwe has little reason to take any meaningful action. Ms. Suu Kyi's meeting today outside her home with junta liaison minister U Aung Kyi suggests the government believes it is important to be seen to engage in dialogue. But as Mr. Gambari recently remarked: "We want time-bound, concrete and serious results."
No doubt, that is the goal. But how long will the Burmese people have to wait?
Copyright © 2007 The Baltimore Sun