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Commentary: Who will bell the cat in Burma?

Htet Aung Kyaw

Jun 5, 2008 (DVB), Many Burmese, this correspondent included, were disappointed when the US announced it was withdrawing the USS Essex group of ships bearing aid supplies for cyclone victims from Burma's coast.

Why has the US-led Western bloc chosen to respect the heartless generals' so-called sovereignty over the lives of cyclone survivors?

Before admiral Timothy Keating announced the ships' retreat, US defence secretary Robert Gates described general Than Shwe's refusal to allow the ships into the cyclone-hit delta area as "criminal neglect". Speaking in Singapore, he also said Burma's obstruction of international efforts to help cyclone victims had cost "tens of thousands of lives".

This strong condemnation from the US Pentagon chief came after UK prime minister Gordon Brown accused the regime of an "inhuman act" and Jean-Maurice Ripert, France's permanent representative to the United Nations said the junta's actions "could lead to a genuine crime against humanity".

However, there has been no action to follow up on these three powerful nations’ strong rhetoric. The question now is: who will take action against the heartless generals now these three permanent members of the UN Security Council have gone back home?

Many world leaders are well aware of how Than Shwe's regime has suppressed its own people over the past 20 years. Cyclone Nargis is the latest and most powerful evidence of this, showing the ruthless generals in their true colours.

Activists in Rangoon cannot take action against the regime or they will face jail sentences. The latest example of this is the well-known comedian and social activist Zarganar, who was arrested last night after leading a 400-strong team of film stars, artists, journalists, monks and relief workers to help cyclone survivors.

The special police unit also confiscated a computer and VCDs of Rambo 4, the wedding of Than Shwe’s daughter, and footage of the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis, all of which are illegal in Burma.

Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party has urged the UN to take immediate action.

"Presently, the authorities are hampering and obstructing the delivery of assistance from the international community. As a result, the number of deaths is growing with each passing day," the party said in a strongly-worded statement.

"Therefore we, the NLD, which is mandated by the people, once again appeal to the international community, including the United Nations, to make use of all available means immediately to send experts and humanitarian assistance and start undertaking relief and rescue missions in Burma."

The call for intervention has come not only from opposition groups but also from a former military officer and diplomat under former spy chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt.

"It was no surprise to me that senior general Than Shwe refused to allow aid to get to millions of cyclone survivors," says major Aung Lin Htut, who served as deputy ambassador in Washington before he sought asylum in the US in 2005. "This is because I remember well how he killed hundreds of people in cold blood."

Aung Lin Htut pointed to the killing of 49 wood cutters and 22 Thai fishermen on a southern island near the Thai port of Ranong in 1998 as an example, and Than Shwe's order to kill Aung San Suu Kyi in Depayin in 2003, which he gave details of to the US-funded Voice of America and DVB.

"Ba Ba Gyi [old man] has never listened to the demands of the UN and ASEAN, who give them carrots. But they take very seriously the stick approach from US-led alliances and NATO, who are better armed than them," he said. "There will be no real change in the Tatmataw without the help of the US or NATO."

After a month-long war of words, there is enough evidence to prosecute Than Shwe’s heartless and cold-blooded killing as a crime against humanity. But the question remains of who will take action: who will bell the cat?

Htet Aung Kyaw is a journalist for Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma.


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