In Support of the Struggle for Democracy in Burma

Sep 19, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

The horrors of World War II should have shocked humanity into rejecting violence and wars forever, and ushered in an era of peace. Yet we continue to see countless abuses and crimes, in some instances, amounting to genocide because those who can prevent these crimes did little or nothing.

The "Killing Fields" of Cambodia in the 70s, the genocide in Rwanda in '94, the ongoing barbarities in Darfur (Sudan), Somalia and Democratic Republic Congo are just some examples reminding us that human beings, though endowed by God with intelligence and sentiments, so often behave in most inhuman cruel manner towards each other.

There comes a time when those who oppose violence and tyranny must rise up. Throughout history from Africa to Asia to Europe, millions of people have risen up against tyrants and brought them down thereby paving the way for freedom and democracy.

On August 5th, I was in Manila to pay tribute to an Asian hero, Corazon Aquino, who led the "People's Power" movement that toppled the Marcos' dictatorship in 1986. Millions of Filipinos paid tribute to the discreet and humble housewife turned international stateswoman and hero.

In 1998, students in Indonesia led a movement that brought down the Suharto dictatorship -- and contributed to our own freedom. Today, Indonesia and the Philippines are examples of tolerance and democracy in the region, maybe still imperfect like our own in Timor-Leste.

Greater powers have succumbed to people's will and sustained international pressure. The former Soviet Union and the Apartheid regime in South Africa are just some examples of this truth.

Burma and North Korea stand out among the few remaining outposts of tyrants, monuments of shame and embarrassment, in a world that has changed in the last 50 years. Tyrants who ruled with arrogance and incompetence, from Eastern Europe to Africa, Asia and Latin America, have mostly been blown away by the winds of change.

The time has come for more forceful and creative ways of fighting for democracy in Burma.

I am opposed to trade embargoes and economic sanctions against developing countries. While sanctions might be politically correct and satisfy our conscience, they are morally less defensible as they impose a harsher burden on an already desperately impoverished people.

However, I do not oppose efforts to freeze public and private assets held by the military and their associates in the region.

If the international community can freeze funds and assets held by individuals allegedly linked to violent extremist groups, there must be an equal moral and political will to target those who hold hostage an entire nation and have committed mass rape and murder against innocent people.

If it proves not possible to secure a binding UN Security Council Resolution on freezing funds and assets linked to the Burmese military that are held in accounts abroad, then the US, Europe, Japan, and other like-minded countries should on their own initiate such measures.

Police agencies, such as Interpol, must be instructed to identify funds and assets held anywhere in the world by the military and their associates, divulge the existence of such accounts, and the names of banks holding them. The tools used to intercept and dry up funding for terrorist groups must be used to choke the Burmese military and punish any financial institution that shelters their wealth.

The Obama administration has brought fresh air and new hope to the world and offered a window of opportunity for dialogue with regimes such as Burma's which may have allowed them to grab the olive branch and find an honorable way out of a situation they have dug themselves into through fear, arrogance and incompetence. However, the Burmese military rulers who have mismanaged and ruined a prosperous nation seem to have misread the Obama Administration's pragmatic and conciliatory approach as weakness.

I propose that Burma's membership in the UN and all UN Agencies and ASEAN be suspended; further, all countries must downgrade their diplomatic relations with Burma and allow for no more than one junior official to mind the embassy wherever there is one; Burmese diplomats wishing to defect should be granted asylum; likewise civilian and military personnel wishing to flee Burma should be supported.

Throughout the Cold War era, the US, Europe and Canada offered shelter to political refugees from the defunct Soviet Union and its Eastern European vassal states. So why not offer similar support for Burmese dissidents and defectors?

Major broadcasting institutions like Voice of America, BBC, and others should significantly expand their Burmese language programmes.

A significant number of the members of the Burmese army are unhappy with the situation, especially after they were ordered to beat up and shoot revered Buddhist monks in September 2007.

Every available means of communication must be used to inspire the officers' corps and soldiers to save the honor of the army and the country. They must be told of their tarnished prestige and the harm done to their country by a few decrepit and corrupt generals who are involved in mass murder and the plundering of their country.

The Burmese soldiers and officers must be told of their complicity in such crimes and must not turn their guns on their own people; they must rise up against the decrepit and corrupt generals.

Senior officers in Hitler's army displayed great courage and patriotism in trying to rid their country and the world of a seemingly omnipotent tyrant. Portuguese young army officers were the architects of the peaceful "Carnation Revolution" in 1974 that brought down the 50 year old Salazar dictatorship and paved the way for democracy in Portugal and independence of its overseas colonies. So the younger Burmese officer corps can be inspired to save their country trough simple acts of patriotism and honor.

The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and UN agencies should, without delay, initiate studies and draft a blue-print for Burma's economic recovery and rebuild its financial system.

When freedom comes, and it will, the road to recovery and political stability will be a very rough and long one. Burma is a country much fractured along ethnic fault lines and plagued by armed drug warlords.

There is no denying that the military will continue to play an indispensable role in maintaining unity and stability in the country. So the new officer corps emerging in Burma should know that they have a historic opportunity to save their country and, together with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, restore Burma's place in the world.

But the Army and Police will have to be reformed and modernized and Burma's neighbors and friends must stand ready to assist in this regard.

Having followed developments in Burma for well over 20 years and seen numerous failed attempts at politely and pragmatically couching the ruling military to show restraint and engage its own people in meaningful dialogue, I believe this is the next practical escalation in making the generals pay the price for the war they have imposed on their own people.

The doors for diplomacy should remain open. If and when wisdom prevails and the military rulers decide to free Suu Kjie and other political prisoners, they must hear a heartfelt appreciation from the international community; and if they take a step further by engaging Suu Kjie and other leaders in meaningful dialogue, the international communicate must offer immediate concrete support; if and when the military and Suu Kjie reach an agreement on steps towards free and democratic elections and the military have abided by the election outcome, then a major international pledging conference should be held where the world community should commit to assist Burma's economic recovery and in what we can anticipate to be a very complex and long road to peace, stability and prosperity.