On November 7th, less than 3 weeks from today, Burma will hold its first elections in more than 20 years. I attended a conference today that brought together some of the world’s leading experts on the human rights and political situation in Burma, hoping to find some reason to hope that November 7th will provide new opportunities for change in a country that has become so close to my heart. And while experts ranging from the refugee to the Nobel Laureate agreed that the elections will not produce a “new” or “democratic” government in any real sense, I nevertheless left inspired and energized to do even more to bring an end to Burma’s suffering.
There was much debate and discussion about how best to do just that. I found it gratifying that there was such broad consensus on issues that EarthRights has been advocating for quite some time; first, that any real change and transition in Burma must consider and prioritize the ethnic people and their particular struggles. The case for “democracy first, ethnic issues second” is no longer being made. Likewise, there was much discussion of the need to provide real incentives to the regime, its neighbors and its allies to push for change. Whether they preferred carrots or sticks, most were in agreement that simple engagement with the regime, without contingencies, would not work. Professor Amartya Sen eloquently ridiculed this notion, dismissing ASEAN’s claims to have given the junta an “earful” by stating that “the military butchers in Burma are happy to have their ears full so long as they have their hands free.”
We heard about the ongoing atrocities and crimes against humanity that have defined Burma for decades; we heard about China’s refusal to push for a Commission of Inquiry; and we heard about ASEAN’s reluctance to “interfere” in Burma’s sovereign affairs; and all of the interests in preserving the status quo.
So why was I inspired and energized? Because I feel like I got a wakeup call today. It’s easy to feel depressed and hopeless when you’ve been working on Burma issues for more than 15 years, hearing the same stories that you’ve heard since day one, and not seeing any improvement. But whatever your tactic — engagement, isolation, or targeted sanctions in the banking sector — just do something, and do it now, because no matter how long this struggle lasts or how ineffective this year’s election are likely to be, action today is as urgent and crucial as ever.
Professor Sen said two things that I won’t soon forget. First, he reminded us that Burma, its business partners, and its neighbors will always do what is prudent for their own best interests, and “what is prudential for them is contingent on what we do.” Even more importantly, he dressed all of us in the audience down, saying that the global activism on Burma has been too defeatist. They didn’t give him a Nobel Prize for nothing. He’s right. We can’t lose focus on the victory that must be achieved, the change that must come to Burma, and the role that all of us must play to make that change come as soon as possible.
Zoya Phan, a Karen refugee living in exile, reminded us all that we can’t tell the woman who watches her child dying — or the political prisoner being tortured in jail — to wait and see what happens, or to give this regime time to change. The time for action is now, and as Professor Sen closed his talk, he gave us our marching orders. “There is everything to fight for, with clarity and with reason.”