While the international community focuses on the issue of human security, the Burmese junta uses the mantra of national security to imprison dissidents and suppress ethnic groups, reports Aung Zaw.
National security issues have often served as a smokescreen for oppression in countries such as Burma, but now there is a growing recognition that real security must serve people, not enslave them.
In September, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan called on the international community to put human security and people-centered development at the heart of foreign policy. Surin stressed: “One cannot have support for human security and effectively pursue people-centered development if one is unable to ensure that people are protected from abuse, suffering and deprivation.”
Over the past few years, as the security of states has increased, the security of citizens around the world has declined. Casualties from armed conflict have doubled over the past decade, with approximately one million people losing their lives each year.
Thailand’s foreign minister is himself well aware of what is really happening in his neighboring country, where the safety and security of ordinary Burmese have been threatened for decades. The military leaders have repeatedly used “security” to justify oppression against their own people. Every time the international community condemns them for their human rights abuses, the leaders invoke “security” as an excuse to justify their crimes. For instance, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was recently stopped from traveling outside the capital for “security reasons”. Meanwhile, a group of young students has been thrown into prison for years because they posed “a threat to national security”.
Burma is a case study of how people may be deprived of their human security by a handful of military rulers acting in the name of national security. The Burmese people have become victims of the generals’ notion of security, rather than its beneficiaries. People may be rounded up simply for listening to short-wave radio stations or talking to foreigners. “Preventive measures” are also taken by the military forces: opposition leaders are put in prison or under house arrest for the sake of “security”. It hardly needs to be asked for whose security these measures are really being taken.
According to a World Bank report released last year, social and economic misery in Burma have deepened greatly at the hands of the country’s despotic rulers. UN special investigator Rajsoomer Lallah has more appalling stories. In his latest annual report, the special investigator cited reports of massacres in which more than 100 minority people had been killed since the beginning of this year. His report indicated that some of the worst violence by the military has been committed against ethnic minorities, particularly the Shan, Karen, Karenni and Rohingya groups.
The question now is how to end such state terrorism. So far, there is no clear answer. The outgoing Canadian foreign minister has proposed at the United Nations the creation of an international commission on intervention and state sovereignty. Though this proposal has divided the UN, particularly along the lines of the North-South divide, activists both inside Burma andabroad have shown great interest.
The oppressed should not feel betrayed by the indifference of the rest of the world. This point was repeatedly made at a conference on human security held in Montreal last month. Human security analyst Nigel Martin argued that it is not always possible for people to free themselves. “It is not reasonable to think that there is going to be any internal process that will allow relief from oppression,” he said. “I’m in favor of outside support. That’s the only way the chains of oppression can be broken.”
Having witnessed the downfall of a ruthless regime in Uganda, Martin is convinced that outside assistance can help bring an end to dictatorships that oppress their own people.
“If you have total subjugation with no real possibility for any kind of freedom internally you need outside help,” Martin commented. “There are regrettable cases where the international community must help people who are under the ruthless heel of oppression.”
These views certainly clash with those of Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien, who recently visited Burma. Nguyen Dy Nien warned that Asean should “keep its basic principles – non-interference, consensus, and the resolution of issues in Asean – in sight.” This came as pressure mounted in recent weeks over Burma’s political deadlock, with some Asean members – notably Thailand – openly asking for international assistance to find a political solution in Burma.
As repression in Burma continues unabated, it is reasonable to expect that calls for intervention will continue to be heard from around the world.
The willingness and ability of the international community to get involved will continue to be crucial elements in resolving Burma’s problems. The political will of the UN must be regarded as a particularly important factor in determining how and when Burma will finally shed the burden of repressive rule. The creation of an independent international commission on intervention would be a promising move, and Burma should certainly be one of the first cases to receive careful consideration and study.
In fact, there are already options that could be used to save the lives of people, if the international community – including the Asean leadership – could find the will to use all of the tools at its disposal, from political engagement to radical action. The chains of oppression can be broken, but only if the world recognizes that human security is an issue that transcends national boundaries.