/ 20 August 2009

‘We must continue knocking on doors’

The single chink in the stoical armour of Burma’s exiled prime minister, Sein Win, appears when asked what he misses about his homeland. ”Everything,” he says, sighing. ”Everything.”

Win last set foot on Burmese soil in 1990. He left shortly after the military annulled the results of the country’s first democratic elections in almost 30 years — won by the National League for Democracy, the party of Win’s cousin, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate, was awarded Amnesty International’s ambassador of conscience award last month. She has been under house arrest for almost 14 of the 20 years since the elections. Win has spent the past 20years lobbying governments and the United Nations.

Despite international condemnation, economic sanctions and popular support for the Burmese cause, the UN Security Council has been unable to pass a resolution strong enough to trigger the release of Suu Kyi or return the country to democracy.

Arrests and atrocities perpetrated by the military junta continue unabated. ”Crimes in Burma”, a report released in May by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard University — and commissioned by five human rights jurists, including former South African Constitutional Court judge Arthur Chaskalson — found human rights abuses in the country widespread and systematic.

The report, based on an analysis of UN documents, called for the Security Council to set up a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses and war crimes by the military government — to no avail.

”Repression is very high, people are being sentenced to long jail terms for political activity and their families are then persecuted — which is very difficult. But inside resistance is still alive and has been taken over by a new generation,” Win says.

Despite the gloom, Win, who was in Durban recently to accept the Mahatma Gandhi Award for Peace and Reconciliation on behalf of Suu Kyi, remains determined. ”Right now the situation seems stuck, but we must continue knocking on doors — we have to do what we have to do.”

He says Suu Kyi’s continued detention and the junta’s initial refusal to accept international aid after Cyclone Nargis left more than 80 000 people dead last year have united and emboldened the Burmese people.

Despite Suu Kyi’s recent trial for breaking the terms of her house arrest by harbouring an uninvited American, who entered her house after swimming across the lake behind it, Win remains doggedly optimistic.

He considers the possibility that Suu Kyi will not be able to participate in elections scheduled for next year, but is buoyed by what he feels is the fragmentation of the military regime.

Citing the recent leaking of a report and photographs detailing a visit to North Korean military installations by General Than Shwe, the head of the junta, Win says: ”This information came from within the military. They are divided and fighting over who will be commander of the army, over who will be the next president. Power and power-sharing could divide them further.”

Although elections have been set for next year, Win says there have been no legislative changes to facilitate a fair poll and believes that even if the military connives to win, the generals still face challenges.

One factor is the role of militarised groups on Burma’s borders that have signed ceasefire agreements with the junta. ”They still pose a military threat and, if they are incorporated [into the army], the question of how they will change the profile of the army arises,” he says.

He is critical of Burma’s neighbours for their ”non-interference policy because they say it is an internal issue — this is a moral and human rights issue”. This is the Russian and Chinese line on Burma. Win believes that when voting on Burma at the UN, countries sometimes act with ”their economic interests in relation to China” in mind.

One country that could be accused of such behaviour is South Africa, which in 2007 used its seat on the Security Council to vote against a resolution calling for the release of all political prisoners and ”concrete progress towards democracy” in Burma.

Given South Africa’s own struggles, Win still smarts, but is forgiving. He says signs from President Jacob Zuma’s government have been encouraging. Soon after Zuma’s Cabinet was announced, Ebrahim Ebrahim, the deputy minister for international relations, met the Burmese ambassador and called for the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, and the normalisation of the political climate in Burma. Ebrahim offered to send a South African delegation to the country to facilitate negotiations. The junta refused the offer.