Over the past few months, horrifying images, sounds and stories have emerged from this Southeast Asian nation known as Myanmar (formerly Burma under British rule). After nearly half a century of military dictatorships, the regime shows little signs of yielding to international pressure, but thanks to cell phones, Internet connections, and the work of brave dissidents and journalists, the world is finally getting to see and hear the truth about the atrocities and human rights violations committed by this heinous government.
Earlier this month, Myanmar’s soldiers beat, shot and arrested thousands of peaceful protesters; raided and blockaded revered pagodas; and even shut down phone and Internet services as part of a crackdown that began when saffron-robed Buddhist monks gathered by the thousands in the nation’s capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The protests in late September came after recent drastic increases in government-controlled oil and gas prices. The government doubled the price of oil and diesel and quintupled the price of natural gas in a country where more than half the population subsists on less than a dollar a day. All the more shocking was that the rate hikes came after Burma found new gas fields in this resource-rich country.
Despite orderly protests and justifiable outrage, the Burmese military arrested and imprisoned monks and nuns, women and children, students, and ordinary citizens by the thousands.
This, unfortunately, is nothing new. Rapes, killings, severe beatings, solitary confinement and water torture have been widely documented in Burma, and more than 70,000 members of the country’s 450,000-man army are child soldiers who are forced into service and ordered to commit atrocities themselves. Methods of torture and execution include electrocution to all areas of the body, spearing women through the vagina, setting villagers on fire and repeated gang rapes. One study, according to the human rights group U.S. Campaign for Burma, found that more than one quarter of the thousands of reported rape cases ended with women being mutilated and killed. International observers argue these atrocities amount to ethnic cleansing and war crimes and should be prosecuted by the United Nations.
Under Gen. Than Shwe, the current resident despot of Myanmar, more than 3,000 villages in the eastern part of the county have been wiped off the map, burned and vacated, forcing more than 1.5 million refugees to hide in the jungles or flee to neighboring countries such as Thailand and Laos. Those who are captured are forced to work in labor camps under harsh conditions where workers are denied food, water and adequate shelter.
Although many political dissidents of Myanmar’s regime have been silenced, imprisoned or forced into hiding or exile, one key figure remains vigilant and courageously eloquent as the nation struggles for freedom. Aung San Suu Kyi [pronounced Ahn San Soo Chee], the daughter of a once prominent Burmese independence leader who was executed, has become the populist voice of her people and was democratically elected president of Burma in 1988.
However, she was placed under house arrest until 1995, then re-arrested in 2000, released in 2002 and once again confined under house arrest in May 2003. For her efforts, she has won the Nobel Prize for Peace and has gained international support from fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, world leaders, U.S. presidents and senators, U2 front man and activist Bono, and Hollywood actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and Anjelica Huston. U2’s hit song “Walk On” is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi.
Just last week, Myanmar’s military government seemed to be softening its hard-line stance when its labor minister met with Aung San Suu Kyi. But skeptics see this as simply window dressing — showing superficial signs of dialogue when, in fact, little is actually done to address the basic needs of Burma’s population.
In addition to the horrors of its prisons, Burma’s health care system is by all accounts one of the worst in the world with high rates of tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria. More than 100 children per 1,000 die before they reach the age of 5. In the United States, about 7 children for every 1,000 die before the age of 5, according to UNICEF. More than 350 out of every 100,000 women in Burma die in childbirth compared to 17 out of 100,000 in the U.S. Myanmar’s government spends a paltry 3 percent of its annual budget on health care, according to a report by Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at Berkeley.
And while the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and donor countries help administer health care within the country and just over its borders, some humanitarian organizations have had to cut back on their services for the Burmese people or pull out altogether because of human rights abuses, travel restrictions, and rules imposed by Myanmar’s military leaders.
With all the pressure on Myanmar’s government, you’d think it would be politically and economically isolated given the sanctions from the U.S. and European nations and the huge numbers of refugees pouring into Myanmar’s neighboring countries.
However, one key ally remains for Myanmar’s dictatorship — China. As both a strategic trading partner and supporter propping up its military, China has invested billions in Myanmar over the past decades, doubling its trade to $2.3 billion in the last seven years. About a third of Myanmar’s imports come from China, which has also poured in more than $2 billion in military weapons, equipment and training since 1989. Just this year, Gen. Than Shwe agreed to sell massive amounts of Burma’s natural gas supply to China at cheap rates for the next 20 years.
No wonder China is one of the few countries in the world that refuses to criticize Myanmar’s leaders or call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners in that country.
Steadfast in its resolve, China has voted against United Nations resolutions that would impose new economic sanctions on Burma or attempts to resolve the crisis there. Chinese diplomats even refused to vote in favor of placing Burma’s current crisis on the U.N. Security Council’s agenda.
With the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, surely the Chinese government could use a little positive press to boost its international image — especially given its own human rights record, pollution problems, and the massive recalls linked to its contaminated medicines, lead-paint toys, and toxic pet food ingredients.
In the meantime, human rights groups continue to raise money and awareness so the world knows more about the plight of the Burmese people. In Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” Groups such as the U.S. Campaign for Burma meet with Burmese dissidents and displaced Burmese families in refugee camps and help deliver humanitarian aid to these camps. To learn more about Burma’s struggle for freedom, go to www.uscampaignforburma.org or www.humanrightsaction-center.org.