Catherine Bebbington © Parliamentary Copyright
Catherine Bebbington © Parliamentary Copyright
Universe Column, David Alton, 21 July 2012
Immediately after Aung San Suu Kyi's historic address to both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall on 21 June, a small ceremony took place in Speaker's House.
Clad in full academic regalia, several of us from Liverpool John Moores University, including our former Chancellor Cherie Booth, greeted Burma's democracy leader and Nobel Laureate, and presented her with an Honorary Fellowship. First awarded in absentia, in 2009, while Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, it was originally received by her sister-in-law, Lucinda Phillips.
We've come a long way since Lucinda's brother, the Worth-educated Catholic academic, Dr.Michael Arris, was refused permission, when dying of cancer, to travel to Burma to be reunited with his wife. With the former Commons Speaker, Jack Weatherill, I visited the Burmese Ambassador and made a plea that, on compassionate grounds, Dr.Arris be allowed to travel to Burma. Their refusal to grant this request told me all I needed to know about this regime.
After receiving her Liverpool Fellowship Aung San Suu Kyi told me she had many happy memories of visiting Worth Abbey with Michael. On giving her a card from James Mawdsley, the young Catholic who spent 18 months in prison in Burma, after demonstrating against the military regime, she said she had read James' book, The Heart Must Break, while she was herself under house arrest. James is now in seminary preparing for ordination.
Aung San Suu Kyi is an immensely courageous champion of democracy, human rights and human dignity. The honours she received, ranging from our small ceremony to the presentation of an honorary doctorate at Oxford University, addresses to the London School of Economics and the Sorbonne, and speeches to Parliament, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and the International Labour Organisation, not to mention sharing a stage with Bono in Dublin, turned the woman we have long admired as a hero of conscience into a global stateswoman.
During the three illegal crossings I have made into Burma's Karen State and during my visits to Burmese refugee camps I would not have believed that Aung San Suu Kyi would one day be free to address both houses of the British Parliament.
Less than a year ago, such scenes would have been inconceivable.
That she felt sufficiently confident to travel abroad for the first time in 24 years is a sign of how far Burma has come since Daw Suu, as she is affectionately known, first met Burma's new President, Thein Sein, last August.
Thein Sein has unveiled a reform programme which has, so far, resulted in the release of several hundred political prisoners, including the most high-profile dissidents, a relaxation of media censorship, more space for civil society activity and ceasefire agreements with many of the armed ethnic resistance organisations. Most significantly, Daw Suu and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 out of 45 parliamentary seats contested in by-elections in April, giving them a foothold in the legislature for the first time.
It is important, however, to remember that despite these glimmers of hope, there is still a very, very long way to go. We must avoid the temptation to get caught up in the euphoria of Daw Suu's visit, and conclude that the job is done. Far from it. As she herself says, while there is room for cautious optimism, much more is required if a peaceful and democratic future for Burma is to be secured.
The changes so far primarily represent a change in atmosphere and, perhaps, in attitude by the regime, which is still dominated by the military even if they are dressed in civilian clothes. There is not yet a change in system. A quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, and the overwhelming remainder of the seats are held by military-backed parties which won the heavily rigged sham elections in 2010. The NLD has no more than six per cent of the seats.
For there to be real change, there must be serious constitutional reform, gradually reducing the military's grip on political power. Repressive laws must be amended or repealed. Ceasefires with the ethnic nationalities must be turned into a serious peace process, with a political dialogue that leads to a lasting political solution to decades of civil war. Several hundred political prisoners who remain in jail must be released.
The question of Burma's ethnic nationalities is fundamental to the country's future.
Despite some ceasefire agreements with other groups, the Burma Army is continuing a brutal war against the predominantly Christian Kachin people in the north. Thousands have been displaced, villages burned, churches destroyed, women raped and civilians killed.
Further to the west, in Arakan State, state-sponsored sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingyas has resulted in countless deaths, the destruction of many villages and the displacement of at least 90,000 people. Those who have lost their homes are living without water, food, medicine or shelter.
A grave humanitarian crisis is unfolding, out of sight of the international community because international media, human rights monitors and aid agencies have been denied access to the affected areas.
On Burma's eastern border, more than a million people have been driven from their homes and over 3,700 villages have been destroyed since 1996. At least 140,000 refugees live in camps in Thailand. During my visits to the Karen people in these areas I have heard first-hand their stories of horrific abuse.
In recent years, the international community has cut funding for refugees and internally displaced peoples. Food and other rations have been cut below subsistence levels causing great stress and threatening to undermine health and community structures.
Burma's refugees along its borders have developed many skills in exile and can play an important part in the reconstruction of their country. Now is the time to invest in their lives and ensure that basic humanitarian needs are met so that they can return in good health and with safety and dignity when the time comes.
If we are to truly honour Aung San Suu Kyi, we should respond to her appeal for practical help. That includes expertise in democratisation, the rule of law, and funding for health and education inside Burma. It must include an urgent humanitarian response to the emergency in Arakan State, pressure on the regime to stop the persecution of the Rohingyas and recognise their citizenship which has so long been denied, and investment in serious inter-racial and inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation. It must involve a serious effort to end the war on the Kachin people, and encourage a serious peace process with all ethnic nationalities. And we must heed her appeal for help for refugees on the Thai-Burmese border.
Before visiting Europe, she visited the border, and in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture she said: "I met dedicated people who were striving daily to make the lives of the inmates as free from hardship as possible. They spoke of their concern over 'donor fatigue,' which could also translate as 'compassion fatigue.' 'Donor fatigue' expresses itself precisely in the reduction of funding. 'Compassion fatigue' expresses itself less obviously in the reduction of concern. One is the consequence of the other. Can we afford to indulge in compassion fatigue? Is the cost of meeting the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be consequent on turning an indifferent, if not a blind, eye on their suffering? I appeal to donors the world over to fulfil the needs of these people who are in search, often it must seem to them a vain search, of refuge."
Last week we enjoyed the celebration of one of our generation's greatest heroes, who ranks alongside Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, John Paul II and Mahatma Gandhi. Now, however, we must return to the long, hard, sober work she has given us to do. Aung San Suu Kyi needs our prayers and our practical support more than ever.
Next week David Alton continues his assessment of the possibilities for fundamental change in Burma.