Opinion: Earnest appeal to President Obama on behalf of Burma

NEW YORK — Twenty years on, my escape from Burma is still vivid in my mind.

In June 1988, six military intelligence agents knocked on my door in Rangoon in the middle of the night. They had come to arrest me for speaking out against the regime during the student uprising that came to be known as the “8888 Uprising.”

With my father’s help, I managed to evade arrest that night. A determined monk hid me among the novices at a nearby Buddhist temple. In the morning, I fled to a small remote town in Upper Burma.

I was one of the lucky few. Up to 6,000 innocent protesters were gunned down, and many more were imprisoned or mysteriously disappeared in the night. I lost many colleagues and close friends.

It is for them and for those who continue to suffer that I appeal to you, President Barack Obama, to pay more than lip service to a new, more proactive policy toward Burma (Myanmar*). The Obama administration must take serious steps now to pressure the military regime if we are to have any hope of ending its murderous reign before elections later this year prolong it even further.

Burma was a harsh environment for nearly everyone back in the 1980s. Most of my neighbors in Rangoon spent from dusk until dawn trying to piece together odd jobs in order to make just a dollar a day, if that. To speak about fundamental human rights was taboo — a crime punishable by torture, imprisonment and sometimes even death.

The country was plummeting below even third-world standards due to the military regime’s economic mismanagement, corruption, general carelessness and greed as it plundered natural resources. Eventually, Burma was reduced to “Least Developed Country” status by the United Nations in 1987. Today, it is considered one of the most corrupt governments in the world by Transparency International.

The 8888 Uprising was initiated and led by university students like myself, who took to the streets to demand basic rights and the regime’s accountability for the murder of a student by security forces. I remember standing on top of the concrete gates out front of the lecture halls and speaking to thousands of students, encouraging them to band together in protest.

Within months, we had gained substantial public support. What began as a cause for student rights quickly turned into a nationwide anti-government, pro-democracy movement — until it was brutally suppressed by the state. It’s a story you heard again in 2007 with the monk-led protests.

But while the Burmese junta was brutally storming the homes of student leaders and peaceful protesters in 1988, the country still had semi-functioning schools and hospitals despite the low GDP figures and bleak economy.

Today, the situation is worse. General Than Shwe's junta spends about 2 percent of GDP on combined education and healthcare. Yet military spending is more than 40 percent of GDP and the rest is safely deposited into the junta’s lavish retirement accounts abroad, especially in Singapore.

The country’s military forces have grown two-fold since 1988 to more than 500,000-strong, making it one of the largest armies in Southeast Asia — its only apparent function to imprison peaceful protesters and to assault ethnic minorities.

A few weeks ago, the junta announced a sham election law that not only ignores the international community’s concerns, but also bans dissident Aung San Suu Kyi from registering her opposition party. The U.N. Security Council met last week but failed to come up with any meaningful action toward Burma, mainly due to Chinese opposition.

This leaves us with one plausible option — and that’s you, Mr. President.

On Sept. 28, 2009, the Obama administration announced the conclusion of its Burma policy review. The administration recognized that years of broader economic sanctions had failed to produce fruitful results due to lack of collaboration from the international community, especially from the regime’s close neighbor China.

Obama’s new policy advocates dialogue with Burma while maintaining the existing sanctions. Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department already has a sanctions list that prevents selected members of the regime from making financial transactions in the U.S. banking system.

In 2008, Congress passed a law that grants special authority to the Treasury Department to stipulate international banks to stop using the U.S. currency if they are doing business with the junta. I see this as a very powerful weapon that the U.S. could deploy if the administration truly wishes to bring desperately needed change to Burma.

Time is running out for the Obama’s administration to set clear objectives and produce tangible results before the state holds its joke of an election later this year. Elections will only legitimize and prolong military rule in Burma indefinitely.

Generations of human rights activists, students, writers, poets, journalists, workers, monks and nuns have already been brutally tortured, imprisoned and worse at the hands of the junta. Thousands of brave dissidents continue to endure extreme pain in prison, while others are being violently uprooted from their homes and sent to hostile camps.

Mr. President, we only have one shot to save precious human lives, to end the tyranny and bring genuine democracy to my motherland. If you mean what you say, what are you waiting for?

*Tim Aye Hardy chooses to register his opposition to the military regime by using “Burma,” the country’s name until 1989 when the regime changed it to “Myanmar.”

Tim Aye Hardy is the director of outreach at Burma Global Action Network and 2009 Carl Wilkens Fellow with the Genocide Intervention Network, which aims to empower individuals and communities with the tools to prevent and stop genocide.