The recent meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, the new dictator of Burma, has given many in Burma some hope that there may be a chance of political progress at last. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma also reflected this hope in comments after his visit to Burma at the end of August. But he was also cautious, talking about the potential for change, not actual change, and the fact that serious human rights abuses continue to be committed.
Those of us from Burma will remember similar hopeful statements from UN Envoys in the past, and also that Aung San Suu Kyi meeting the President has happened before, as long ago as 1994,and led nowhere. We know to judge the dictatorship by its actions, not its words.
In Burma, as in other countries ruled by dictatorship, the release of political prisoners has always been seen as a key benchmark for judging progress towards political reform. By that benchmark it's clear that Burma's new dictator, Thein Sein, isn't bringing change to my country. His government denies the 1,995 political prisoners even exist. The international community must now try something new to finally push the dictatorship to go beyond words.
A rare opportunity to try something new is fast approaching, with European Union diplomats currently discussing what will go into the next UN General Assembly resolution on Burma.
It will be the 21st Resolution on Burma, and it always calls for the release of political prisoners, a call which is always ignored.
Yet despite the critical benchmark of the release of political prisoners not being met, some European governments are arguing that before taking any new action in the Resolution, we must still wait and see if there will be change in Burma.
They would not see it like this if they looked at the situation from inside a prison cell, as I have. Every day is a crisis, a living hell. To survive with your mental and physical health intact is literally a life and death struggle.
Political prisoners face what amounts to two kinds of torture. The first is the torture more widely known about, which often takes place during interrogation. This includes beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and many many other horrific acts.
The other form of torture inflicted upon prisoners is just as serious, but gets little attention.
The Rome Statute, which has legal definitions of crimes against humanity, describes torture as: 'the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused.'
Physical and mental suffering is deliberately inflicted upon political prisoners as a matter of government policy. Prisoners suffer from grossly inadequate medical care for small and serious illnesses and from untreated injuries from torture. They are subjected to mental suffering, being transferred to remote prisons away from families whose visits would lift their spirit, and who can bring them decent food and vital medicine. They are forced to live in horrific prison conditions, and threats and actual violence are routine.
On December 8th Buddhist monk U Naymeinda died in prison. His death was due to malnutrition, maltreatment and inadequate medical care. He was the 146th documented political prisoner to die in prison in Burma since 1988. The true number is believed to be much higher.
Ko Min Aung, a member of the National League for Democracy, has been denied urgent medical treatment for heart disease for over 11 months. In addition he is serving a sentence in Kale prison, Sagaing division, 800 miles from his home. Min Ko Naing, a member of the 88 generation students' group, is suffering from heart disease, gout, and is often very dizzy. He is being held in a remote prison, making it very difficult for his family to provide him with essential medicine.
Failure to provide prisoners with the basics, such as adequate food and clothing, appropriate medical treatment, and a cell that is clean, is in breach of a number of international laws and standards.
At the upcoming UN General Assembly this September, the 21st Resolution on Burma will call again for the release of political prisoners, and again, it will be ignored.
So this year, we are asking European governments, which draft the Resolution, to try something new. We want them to include the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in the resolution. It is only a small step, but it would be a significant one. It is a step already recommended by the UN's own Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma.
An official UN Inquiry, shining a spotlight onto the abuses taking place against political prisoners in Burma's jails, and the abuses taking place against civilians in ethnic areas, could have a real impact in reducing the scale of some of these abuses. The dictatorship craves international acceptance. It does not want the world to know what they are doing in the remote jungles of Burma, and behind the high prison walls.
A UN Inquiry, which can expose the truth and make recommendations for practical action, won't stop Thein Sein from making reforms if he really wants to. But it could help improve the situation for political prisoners in Burma, something which the past 20 General Assembly resolutions have failed to do. Political prisoners can't afford more wait and see. The EU must act now.
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