Help Free Burma - Fight for Human Rights

By Bryan Rite

Burma has been in the news a lot lately for its military oppression of peaceful demonstrations but what is really going on there and how can we help? Burma, or Myanmar as renamed by the military run government, has had an incredible struggle like many of its surrounding countries. The issues come down to basic human rights and government corruption and oppression.

A Burmese man stands strong as military riot squad advances.

History

Burma is the largest country in South East Asia, but so little is known internationally as to what goes on there. Originally colonized by the British Empire, Burma gained independence in 1948 to become the Union of Burma. It has since changed names dozens of times, both accepted and un-recognized by international bodies around the world.

Internally, the country is referred to as Myanmar by its ruling Military Junta, which has been accepted by the United Nations but opposition groups continue to call the country Burma - refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the ruling Junta.

Displaced Burmese from the military oppression.

What is a Junta?

A junta is a government run by committee that has taken the meaning of a military government. Different then a dictatorship, a junta is a collection of rulers, in the case of the Burmese, the military leaders.

Initially, upon its independence from the British, Burma was a democracy and enjoyed international success and prosperity. The country was run by an elected President and Prime Minister and the Burmese representative to the United Nations, U Thrat, was the first non-Westerner to sit as the Secretary-General of the United Nations; a post he held for ten years.

In 1963, the military gained control of the country in a coup d'état and ruled violently for 26 years. In 1988, a similar situation as to what is happening today occurred. Known as the 8888 Uprising, the Burmese rose up in pro-democracy protests over government oppression and a poorly managed economy. Protesters were massacred resulting in hundreds of deaths.

Aung San Suu Kyi - only Nobel Peace Prize winner being held in prison.

Aung San Suu Kyi

As a result the SLORC, State Law and Order Restoration Council, was formed and led to many reforms - most notably, the renaming of Burma to Myanmar and the first democratic elections in almost three decades. The National League for Democracy (NLD) was formed and headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The elections were held in 1990 and the NLD won by a decisive percentage, taking almost 60% of the votes. Unwilling to step down, the military-run SLORC annulled the results and set back up as a military Junta.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been held prisoner since the election under house-arrest. She is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to be held prisoner today. She has been 'set-free' on several occasions, forced to remain in Burma, but is always returned to house-arrest, the latest since 2003.

Today

In the last weeks, protests have started across Burma. Started by an increase in fuel costs, but ultimately a sign of an oppressed people wishing to make a change, the uprising has finally shone light to the international press on the injustices of the ruling junta. The 'Saffron Revolution' refers to the colour of monk robes - some of the leaders of the uprising. After a number of monks were injured by the military during a peaceful protest, they have led the people into non-violent protesting in all of Burma's largest cities.

Satellite pictures showing burning villages / soldiers blocking the streets.

In the last few days, the military has come down hard and viciously, closing down and surrounding monasteries so the monks cannot leave, violently suppressing marches and even cutting external communications. The Internet and phone infrastructure has been shut down making reliable accounts as to what is happening in Burma scarce. As of September 28, 2007 the government has said 10 people were killed, including a Japanese photographer - but the international community can only take the junta's word for the death-toll, and estimates are much, much higher. Satellite photos show villages burning and civilian relocation in progress.

What can you do

China and Russia are still blocking the United Nations attempts to intervene so direct help and aid is difficult at best. Writing letters, emails, and supporting your local Burmese charities or human rights foundations, like Amnesty International.

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