UN vetoes prolong Burma agony

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 17/01/07):

Burma's military junta has been crowing this week over the defeat of a US- and British-backed United Nations security council resolution condemning the regime's egregious human rights abuses. It is a sickening sound for millions of oppressed Burmese effectively imprisoned in their own homeland. And the decisive UN vetoes cast by China and Russia, supported by South Africa of all countries, have dealt another Darfur-scale setback to the international community's newly proclaimed "responsibility to protect".

For once, the Bush administration, democracy and human rights campaigners, and aid agencies are mostly in the same corner. "The US is deeply disappointed by the council's failure," said acting UN ambassador Alejandro Wolff. "The resolution would have been a strong and urgently needed statement about the need for change in Burma whose military regime arbitrarily arrests, tortures, rapes and executes its own people and wages war on minorities within its own borders while refugee flows increase, narcotics and human trafficking grow, and communicable diseases remain untreated."

Britain's ambassador, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, said the decision to force a vote was an attempt to "do the right thing by the people of Myanmar [Burma]".

Mark Farmaner, of the independent pressure group Burma Campaign UK, said poverty and humanitarian problems were worsening, especially in ethnic minority regions targeted by the junta. "Over 20,000 people have been forced from their homes since government troops began an offensive in the Karen areas last March. They have been unable to return," he said. New restrictions were also making foreign aid agency work increasingly difficult. Burma's average per capita income has been estimated at $175 (£90) a year, much lower even than neighbouring Bangladesh. Child malnutrition and mortality rates are reportedly rising.

But the UN defeat was a blow, not a knockout punch, Mr Farmaner said. "The whole process has massively pushed Burma up the international agenda. The Asean states [Association of South-East Asian Nations] are taking a stronger line. The UN secretariat is involved. Ibrahim Gambari, the UN undersecretary general, has been there twice. There has been nothing like this before." He said there were also signs of strengthening internal political opposition, notably the 88 Generation Students group's peaceful "white expression" campaign and a protest petition signed by half a million people.

In power since 1988, the generals annulled the National League for Democracy's sweeping 1990 election victory and jailed its leader, the Nobel peace prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. She remains under house arrest and more than 1,000 supporters are still in prison. The regime says its is pursuing a "road map to democracy" but the officially supervised process is widely derided as a sham. Meanwhile, the junta's leader, Senior General Than Shwe, continues to defy external pressure for meaningful reform - a stance now boosted, at least temporarily, by Chinese and Russian vetoes.

China defended its action, arguing that the security council was not the place to tackle such issues. "The situation in Myanmar does not constitute a threat to regional and international peace and security [as the US had argued]," a Beijing statement said. The council was in danger of exceeding its remit. Russia and South Africa, mindful perhaps of similar US attempts to pressure Zimbabwe, offered similar excuses. Official Burmese media hailed their action as a "victory for people who love truth" and a defeat for "western meddling".

But more obviously self-interested calculations are also in play. China's growing economic relationship with the junta includes a planned trans-Burma pipeline from Sittwe, on the Bay of Bengal, to Yunnan province that will potentially carry all Beijing's Middle East oil imports. China is also deeply interested in exploiting Burma's large natural gas reserves and other natural resources. Although it does not like the regime, Beijing's other overriding priority is stability and border security.

For its part, India would like to curb China's influence in Burma while maximising its own. Like Russia, it is a significant arms supplier. It, too, is placing energy, trade and security concerns, notably over separatist insurgents in Assam state who seek refuge in Burma, before democracy promotion and human rights.

And when a shared desire by the two emerging Asian superpowers to wipe America's eye in their own backyard is also factored in, hopes of rescuing Burma's people from Burma's despots look sickly indeed.