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In the week when Amnesty International awarded Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi its highest accolade, Ambassador of Conscience, a fellow Nobel laureate pays tribute.
This article was written in response to a feature about Aung San Suu Kyi by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark which was published on 11 November 2008
I think of my sister Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi every day. Her picture hangs on the wall of my office, reminding me that, thousands of miles away in Asia, a nation is oppressed. Every day I ask myself: have I done everything I can try to end the atrocities being committed in Burma? And I pray that world leaders will ask themselves the same question. For if they did, the answer would be “no”, and perhaps their conscience will finally force them to act.
Humankind has the ability to live in freedom and in peace. We have seen that goodness has triumphed over evil; we have witnessed political transitions in South Africa, and elsewhere, evidencing that we live in a moral universe. Our world is sometimes lacking wise and good leadership or, as in the case of Burma, the leadership is forbidden to lead.
Aung San Suu Kyi has now been detained for more than 13 years. She recently passed her 5,000th day in detention. Every one of those days is a tragedy and a lost opportunity. The whole world, not just the people of Burma, suffers from this loss. We desperately need the kind of moral and principled leadership that Aung San Suu Kyi would provide. And when you add the more than 2,100 political prisoners who are also in Burma’s jails, and the thousands more jailed in recent decades, the true scale of injustice, but also of lost potential, becomes heartbreakingly clear.
Like many leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi has had to make great personal sacrifices. It is cruel enough to deprive an innocent person of her freedom. Burma’s generals are crueller still. They try to use her as leverage to make her submit to their will. They refused to allow her husband to visit one last time when he was dying of cancer. She has grandchildren she has never even met. Yet her will and determination have stayed strong despite her being kept in detention for so many years.
More than anything, the new trial and detention of Aung San Suu Kyi speaks volumes about her effectiveness as a leader. The only reason the generals need to silence her clarion call for freedom is because they fear her and the principles she stands for. She is the greatest threat to their continuing rule.
The universal demand for human freedom cannot be suppressed forever. This is a universal truth that Than Shwe, the dictator of Burma, has failed to understand. How frustrated must he be that no matter how long he keeps Aung San Suu Kyi in detention, no matter how many guns he buys, and no matter how many people he imprisons, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma will not submit. The demands for the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners of Burma grow louder and echo around the world, reaching even his new capital hidden in central Burma. Words, however, are not enough. Freedom is never given freely by those who have power; it has to be fought for.
The continuing detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s other political prisoners is a crime and an indictment of an international community that often substitutes the issuance of repeated statements of concern for effective diplomacy. The UN treats the situation in Burma as if it is just a dispute between two sides, and they must mediate to find a middle ground. The reality is that a brutal, criminal and illegal dictatorship is trying, and failing, to crush those who want freedom and justice. The international community cannot be neutral in the face of evil. That evil must be called what it is, and confronted.
Change is overdue to the framework within which the international community approaches Burma. Twenty years of trying to persuade Burma’s generals to reform has not secured any improvement. Forty visits by UN envoys have failed to elicit any change. The warm embrace of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) did not improve the behaviour of the regime towards Burma’s citizens whether Christian, Buddhist or Muslim. The regime rules with an iron fist and those under its rule have suffered long enough.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters have time and again offered to dialogue with the regime. They offered a path of reconciliation and non-violent transition. Even as Aung San Suu Kyi stood before the regime’s sham court, facing five years’ imprisonment, we heard her voice loud and strong. She said: “There could be many opportunities for national reconciliation if all parties so wished.”
Burma’s generals must now face the consequences of their actions. The detention of Aung San Suu Kyi is as clear a signal as we could get that there will be no chance of reform and that the regime’s “road map to democracy”, including the call for elections, in 2010, is an obstacle to justice.
A new report from Harvard Law School, Crimes in Burma, commissioned by some of the most respected jurists in international law, has used the UN’s own reports to highlight how Burma’s generals have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Burma’s generals are criminals, and must be treated as such. Than Shwe should be held accountable for abominable atrocities: his soldiers rape ethnic women and children, they torture, mutilate and murder at will. In eastern Burma, more than 3,300 ethnic villages have been destroyed, more than in Darfur. Civilians are deliberately targeted and shot on sight.
Than Shwe spurned the compassion of those willing to provide assistance following Cyclone Nargis. Instead, he conducted a referendum and he declared his undemocratic constitution the victor while victims perished from the cyclone’s devastation. These are war crimes and crimes against humanity. Than Shwe and the rest of the generals cannot be allowed to go unpunished. The UN must establish a commission of inquiry, with a view to compiling evidence for prosecution. Failure to do so amounts to complicity with these crimes.
An international arms embargo must also be imposed immediately. Those countries supplying arms to Burma are facilitating these atrocities. Countries across the world must declare their support for a global arms embargo, making it impossible for China to resist such a move at the Security Council.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma deserve nothing less than our most strenuous efforts to help them secure their freedom. Every day we must ask ourselves: have we done everything that we can? I pledge that I will not rest until Aung San Suu Kyi, and all the people of Burma, are free. Please join me.
Desmond M Tutu is the former Archbishop of Cape Town and recipient of the Nobel peace prize