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We must not forget the brave people of Burma

Monday, October 29, 2007

The following was published in the Sheffield Telegraph 26th October 2007.


The peaceful demonstrations in Burma calling for democracy brought hope to a country ruled for so long by a brutal military regime. To have that hope crushed by soldiers firing at unarmed civilians will have shocked many. Burma has slipped from the front pages of our newspapers, but it is not forgotten. Significantly Burma’s neighbours have not forgotten, as I know from my recent visit to the region.


It was mid-August we first began to get reports of street protests in Burma. These were a direct response to the regime’s decision to increase the retail price of fuel by up to 500 per cent, but they soon took on a more overtly political tone. The demonstrations grew rapidly in size in late September, led by large numbers of Buddhist monks and nuns.


The UK government expressed solidarity and warned the regime that it would be judged by how it responded to this peaceful movement. Our priority was for the international community to send a united signal that violent repression would not be tolerated. That involved the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I contacting our counterparts, particularly Burma’s neighbours.


In London I met with the Burma Campaign, which includes a number of Burmese who told me of information they were receiving from friends and family members in Burma. In Sheffield there have been weekly vigils of support and contact with Karen refugees who live here.


Tragically the regime turned its guns on its own people. We do not know every detail of how they crushed the peaceful protests, but first-hand accounts trickle out, and what we do know for certain is terrible enough; including shocking reports of the crematoriums working through the night to destroy the evidence of the atrocities. We know that the regime is continuing to round people up and keeps those arrested in inhuman conditions.


It may be that the generals thought that they could get away with it as global interest faded. If so, they badly miscalculated the determination of people and governments around the world. There are two immediate steps the regime must take. The first is to end the violence and to release all political detainees, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected leader of the largest democratic political party.


The second step is to engage in a genuine process of national reconciliation and unification. This must involve the leaders of all Burma’s political opposition and ethnic groups. It must have international legitimacy with the UN and Burma’s neighbours closely engaged.


The UK government is working hard to keep the pressure on the Burmese regime. In recent weeks I have met and spoken to Ministers and senior officials from countries in the region including China, India, Thailand and Singapore. I have pressed them to support the UN process and for them to put pressure on Burma. We continue to provide vital humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people, so that they do not suffer twice-over from the actions of the regime.


The job of all us who care about the future of Burma in government or not is to keep up the pressure; not to forget, not to lose momentum, not to abandon the brave people of Burma. 


Meg Munn

MP for Sheffield Heeley and Parliamentary under-Secretary of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

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