About the Author: Ambassador Karen B. Stewart serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
I first visited Burma 25 years ago and was captivated by its culture and people. But even tourists felt the oppression of the military junta. For the people of Burma the desperate human rights situation continues to deteriorate daily. The deepening pattern of repression, arrest and imprisonment of individuals whose only crime is free expression remains of grave concern to the United States. We all remember the brutal actions by the regime a year ago when it attacked peaceful protesters seeking change for their country. Inspiring images of thousands of monks demonstrating were juxtaposed against pictures of military tanks and soldiers sent to silence those speaking out after years of repressive rule.
Since November, in what appears to be part two of the junta's crackdown on the opposition, we have witnessed the military regime impose multiple heavy prison sentences on more than 200 monks, journalists, and pro-democracy and civic activists who were tried for nothing more than seeking to exercise their basic political rights.
Yesterday, First Lady Laura Bush, who has played an active role in speaking out against the military dictatorship, praised the courage of the Burmese people for standing up to the repressive military rule that has crushed peaceful dissent for decades.
“Children are conscripted as soldiers, and families are forced to perform life-threatening labor,” she said, speaking on the occasion of Human Rights Day at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The First Lady pointed to the junta's campaign to silence opponents ahead of planned elections in 2010, despite the regime's promises to work toward a democratic transition.
“Since the Saffron Revolution of 2007, the number of political prisoners in Burma has increased from around 1,100 to more than 2,100 now. Female activist Nilar Thein was forced to leave her newborn child and flee into hiding. After a year on the run, she was captured and jailed this September,” she said.
The regime must heed the calls of the United Nations and the international community to release immediately and unconditionally all political prisoners and to immediately begin a genuine, transparent, and inclusive dialogue with all democratic and ethnic minority groups with the support of the United Nations. Engaging in a substantive dialogue with representatives from a cross section of Burmese society is the only way Burma will move towards national reconciliation and become a functional member of the international community. A recent letter by 112 former presidents’ and prime ministers appealed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to remain actively engaged in pressing the junta to respond to the aspirations of its citizens for human rights and democracy.
The U.S. Government has urged the United Nations Security Council and Secretary-General Ban to continue drawing attention to the deplorable human rights situation in Burma. The international community knows that the brutal and irresponsible actions of Burma’s regime also pose serious transborder problems for the region in the forms of refugee flows, smuggling and trafficking in persons, and the spread of infectious disease. We call on Burma’s neighbors in Southeast Asia to also use their influence with the regime to press for cooperation with the United Nations and the international community. The people of Burma deserve no less.