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14 August 2006

Burma Special: Easy praise, empty words

By Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By this October, my courageous sister and fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi will have spent 11 years of her life in detention in Burma. Eleven years that she has sacrificed and dedicated to the freedom of her people. Like Gandhi before her, she has steadfastly rejected the use of violence in the struggle to free Burma from the clutches of its hardmen. And yet, even without tanks, guns or an army behind her – and from the solitude of house arrest – she continues to pose a threat to the scared military men of Burma.

But where are the statesmen and women, the visionaries of our time, with regard to Aung San Suu Kyi’s non-violent struggle for freedom? Governments the world over have given my sister so much praise for standing courageously against the generals and the military machine they command. But praise is easy and words empty when they fail consistently to translate into action.

Protracted hand-wringing, the counter economic interests of some countries, and an absence of courage and vision over the years, have meant that there has been no coherent international governmental strategy on how to tackle Burma’s intransigent rulers. The repetitive words of 15 years of UN reports, resolutions and statements, and the laudable efforts of a sequence of UN special envoys and rapporteurs, have failed to effect any positive change. The regime continues to reject any assertion of human-rights abuses, has shown no commitment to years of UN mediation efforts and has refused to co-operate with current non-enforceable UN efforts. In fact, at each turn, Burma’s generals have opted to ignore, snub and embarrass the entire UN system.

The time for words is done. Last year, together with President Václav Havel, I commissioned the global law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary to prepare a definitive report on the threat that the Burmese government poses both to its own people and to regional peace and security. The evidence and facts contained in the report made it abundantly clear that a coherent multilateral approach must now be deployed through the auspices of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as soon as possible. Burma’s generals have shown that they will respond to nothing less.

I make a direct call here to our friends on the UNSC, many of whom fought hard against apartheid in South Africa, to help us now to support the people of Burma. As happened with the apartheid regime in South Africa, the people of Burma have unequivocally rejected their illegitimate rulers; and the legitimate representatives of Burma’s people have urged the world to support them. I call upon my brothers and sisters on the UNSC to pass a resolution that binds Burma’s regime into an irreversible contract – one that commits it to a transition to democratic government and ensures the release, not only of Aung San Suu Kyi, but of all those who have endured the darkness of a Burmese prison for the sake of freedom.

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If we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to this end, Burma will one day have a leader whose commitment to her people is unwavering, and whose integrity and vision have already been proven by her courage, sacrifice and vision. Just as Nelson Mandela no longer belongs only to South Africans, I believe that in the future Aung San Suu Kyi will be a shining light for Asia and the world.

History has shown us that neither systems, nor governments, nor dictators are eternal, but the spirit of freedom is. Freedom then is our dangerous message, our potent weapon. We must ensure that it rings loud in the dark hallways of the dictators in Rangoon.

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