Nowhere else in the world is the human rights situation as bad as in Burma. Nowhere else have people fought so hard for their freedom and yet still suffer under the threat of terror and repression. And nowhere else will the rest of the world care less, unless it becomes too late.
On the same day that President Bush delivered his address to Congress on the new international order, a crowd of Burmese students demonstrated in Mandalay for democracy and human rights. Eleven people were killed. Hundreds have been arrested in the past two weeks alone, including the leadership of the National League for Democracy, the country's largest political party. More demonstrations are expected these next few weeks, and every day Burma moves closer and closer to civil war.
The unrest began two years ago when millions of people marched in Rangoon, Mandalay and other Burmese cities demanding an end to the 26-year military dictatorship of Gen. Ne Win, which has impoverished what was once the richest nation in Southeast Asia. Gen. Ne Win responded by gunning down as many as 10,000 unarmed civilians, many secondary school students as young as 12 or 13.
Since the crackdown in September 1988, tens of thousands of people have been arrested, executed or have disappeared. Military tribunals have replaced civil courts, gatherings of more than four people are forbidden, and schools and universities have remained closed. Young men live in constant fear of being taken away for porter service in the remote jungles, where they are used as human minesweepers and made to carry army supplies until they die. Torture is both severe and widespread, and imprisoned students are subject to beatings and electric shocks and kept in solitary confinement.
And yet the people of Burma carry on in their fight for democracy and believe that the world -- especially the United States -- is on their side. Last May, the military, thinking that it had jailed and intimidated enough opposition activists, held "free and fair elections." The military lost, winning only 10 of 492 seats. Since May, the military has moved step by step to invalidate those elections, and the resulting anger has brought Burma back to the point of another violent explosion.
Though Burma's government has followed an isolationist foreign policy, Burma is not isolated, and the international community and the United Nations can do a lot to prevent further bloodshed. First, multinational companies, including many American companies, can stop funding the regime through their investments in the military's projects. Many of these foreign companies are engaged in timber and mineral extraction, and the resulting environmental damage (Burma could lose all its rain forests in five years) threatens the whole region.
Second, the United States can take a harder line on the military's suspected involvement in the heroin trade, involvement which may be providing Gen. Ne Win with much-needed cash. Certainly the United States should end all talk of resuming anti-narcotics assistance to the military regime, as suggested by the DEA and others in Washington.
Third, the United Nations as a whole can speak out on human rights, end bilateral and multilateral assistance and perhaps move toward comprehensive sanctions. The military has shown time and again how sensitive it is to foreign criticism, and pulling away outside support for the regime could make all the difference in ensuring peaceful democratic change.
In early August, China began providing Burma with more than $1 billion worth of arms. Burma is fighting ethnic insurgencies that have already spilled into Thailand and India. A bloody and sustained confrontation between the military and the people could eventually have serious international repercussions. Better to act before the situation reaches crisis proportions. The United States and the rest of the world can do more to help.
The writer, grandson of U Thant, is secretary of the Burma Fund and a senior fellow at the International Center for Development Policy.