It could have been me

William Hague on Saw Naing Naing

A politician whose only crime has been daring to speak out in su

Political life invariably involves personal cost. For some politicians, loss of privacy is the greatest drawback. Others regret the toll that the commitments of political life take on family life. But, unlike in Burma, an MP in this country runs no risk of being imprisoned if his or her ideas run counter to the views of the government. In Burma, support for democracy is deemed an unacceptable challenge to the authority of a regime that maintains its grip on power through violence.

The MP Saw Naing Naing is just one Burmese politician who has paid the price of thinking freely and daring to speak out.

He was first elected in 1990, when the National League for Democracy won its landslide victory. Rather than take his place in parliament, as I did in 1989, he was thrown in jail along with many of his fellow NLD members and subjected to horrific privations during a decade-long incarceration.

He was released in 1999, only to be rearrested the next year when he put his name to a statement denouncing the suppression of democracy in Burma.

Aged 58, he received a 21-year sentence for violating laws which ordain the junta's official approval of anything written and which allow the regime to punish all "threats to internal stability". Today he is one of the 1,100 political prisoners believed to be incarcerated in Burma for opposing the regime.

When I speak as a member of parliament or as the shadow foreign secretary, I do so in the knowledge that my arguments, words and actions are open to scrutiny by the public, my political opponents, and the media. In Burma no such freedom exists.

Over five decades, Burma's military regime has sustained itself through violence and intimidation. The regime starves, brutalises and dispossesses its own people, permitting its army to use slave labour and child soldiers.

The UN General Assembly and the UN Commission on Human Rights have condemned the junta's gross human-rights violations in at least 28 separate resolutions over the years. However, these resolutions are not enforceable, and the Burmese regime continues to act with impunity.

In January this year, the UK and the US led an attempt to censure the government of Burma at the Security Council. They put forward a draft Security Council resolution which called on the junta to take concrete steps to allow full freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of movement in Burma - first by unconditionally releasing all political prisoners, then by lifting constraints on all political leaders and citizens, and allowing the NLD and other political parties to operate without restraint.

If it had been agreed, the resolution would have also called on the Burmese government to cease military attacks against civilians in ethnic-minority regions and begin a substantive political dialogue that would lead to a genuine democratic transition.

The resolution was not passed because of opposition from other members of the Security Council, including Russia and China. This was bitterly disappointing and represents a missed opportunity.

At the end of April, the European Union renewed its Common Position on Burma. Here was a chance for the EU to show its abhorrence for the actions of the Burmese regime, but the Foreign Council chose to roll the terms of the old position over to next year. The Conservatives have called for extended EU sanctions and for the credible threat of restrictions on European trade with Rangoon.

Some of the foreign investment from Europe and Asia plays a significant part in Burma's survival. It is carried and directed through companies owned and operated by Burma's ministry of defence. In cases such as this one, we should encourage companies to examine and reduce their links with the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have repeatedly called for the world to cut off this lifeline that keeps the regime alive. We ought to listen.

It is worrying that countries such as India, the world's largest democracy, have remained silent about the regime's abuses. We should encourage this key regional player to champion reform and change in Burma. In addition, our own government, with cross-party support, should lead the way in supporting democracy-building, human-rights documentation and education, and in providing urgently needed humanitarian support to the people of Burma.

We should all speak out for basic human and civil rights and the aspirations of the Burmese, who desire what so many others around the world are able to take for granted: the chance to express their views freely and to be represented by the leaders they freely elect.

To take action on behalf of Saw Naing Naing, log on to:

William Hague is MP for Richmond (Yorkshire)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?