English

ARGENTINA, BURMA, AND INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY

Dec 29 2006

By Kerry Kennedy (*)

NEW YORK, Dec (IPS) The military junta that ran Argentina during the late
1970s and early 1980s thought nothing of keeping its naval officers in
close proximity to the thousands of dissidents tortured and executed for
opposing the regime.

Just how close became shockingly clear to me last year during a visit to
the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires. Hooded prisoners were
transferred from their holding cells in the attic to the torture chamber
in the basement on the same staircases used by the military to go to and
from their dorm rooms, the mess hall, their offices, the hospital, and the
church.

First Lady Cristina Kirchner related the particularly chilling account of
the evidently criminal general who brought a priest in to say Mass with
torture victims on Christmas Eve, days before the same general had them
drugged and thrown live from airplanes into ocean or a river. A doctor was
kept on hand to stop the torture sessions prior to death, and a priest to
say last rights in case the doctor made a mistake.

Upon returning to the United States, I tried to explain to my daughters
the horrors that had taken place there as a military junta exterminated
5,000 civilians. How do you explain to innocents cruelty on such a scale?

The lessons learned from President and First Lady Kirchner and the
survivors of the Mechanics School taught us how their capacity to survive
often depended on their faith that they were not alone, that people on the
outside cared. We heard the same from the endlessly brave Mothers of the
Disappeared.

Despite differences in culture, history, and circumstance, I have heard
similar stories from other dissidents around the world. From Chile to
South Africa to Indonesia, the bravest people on earth, human rights
defenders imprisoned, tortured, and threatened with death for their work,
say that during their dark moments of despair, news of effective
international support lifted their spirits and infused them with
determination.

Today, the people of the Southeast Asian country of Burma find themselves
in a similar struggle, risking their lives to call for peaceful change and
national reconciliation. Their leader is Aung San Suu Kyi, the world’s
only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient. She leads a political party,
the National League for Democracy, which in 1990 won 82 percent of the
seats in parliament in Burma’s last, ill-fated democratic election.
Burma’s ruling military junta annulled the results and has ruled by
country by brutal force ever since.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment, however, is only the most visible
aspect of the human rights and humanitarian nightmare in Burma. The abuses
of the military junta go far beyond brutal torture, murder, and
disappearances.

The regime burned down 3,000 villages in the eastern section of the
country in an attempt to ethnically cleanse minorities. It is also
destroying food supplies and pressing thousands of ethnic villagers into
modern-day slave labour, forcing over one million refugees to flee the
country. Worst yet, half a million people are barely surviving as internal
refugees, almost completely beyond the reach of international aid. Human
Rights Watch reports that the junta has recruited and conscripted more
child soldiers than any other country in the world.

Thankfully, there is hope. Last September, the UN Security Council voted
to place Burma on its permanent agenda—for the first time in history.
South Africa’s Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu and former Czech
president Vaclav Havel launched the idea for the Security Council to
address Burma. Risking their lives, the leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi’s
political party, the National League for Democracy, have strongly endorsed
the effort.

This initiative comes after the United Nations has sadly failed Burma for
too long. Over the past 14 years, 29 resolutions from the UN General
Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights have accomplished nothing. The
General Assembly authorised Kofi Annan to appoint two special envoys to
Burma over 10 years, while the Commission on Human Rights appointed four
special rapporteurs since the early 1990s.

With each diplomatic visit, the military junta promised that it was
prepared to make changes. And, after each envoy returned to New York, the
junta broke those promises. Now, the regime has made more promises.

Don’t believe them. It is time for the generals to be held to account.

Thankfully, Argentina is a member of the Security Council and knows the
trauma created by a ruling military junta. As a member of the Security
Council, Argentina should support the proposal for an immediate, binding
UN Security Council resolution on Burma.

Security Council member countries and the rest of the international
community should require Burma’s generals to cease all human rights
violations and hold free elections.

(*) Kerry Kennedy is the author of “Speak Truth to Power” and the
founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights.

She is the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy.

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