April 2, 1998

The following is the speech delivered by Thaung Htun, UN representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) to the Alternative State Reception for the unrepresented peoples of Asia.
Key points:
– Unilateral Sanctions By UK or Any Other EU Government On Burma are legally possible and should be imposed.
– If human rights and democracy are excluded from the ASEM agenda it will be a critical opportunity missed.
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a pleasure to be able to address you this evening and in such prestigious company.
It would have been wonderful to have Daw Aung San Suu Kyi here in person to speak to you—I hope one day, in the near future, that this will be possible. I also hope it will be on a day celebrating the successful transition to democracy in Burma.
Until then there are two possible journeys we can make to arrive at that day of celebration. One journey takes a long road and the other a short road. Whichever one we are forced to travel we are confident we will reach our destination—One of Peace, Freedom and Democracy. But it is unfortunate that there are many who have no interest in making our journey shorter.
Companies, such as Premier Oil UK, who help to finance Burma’s military regime—make the road longer.
Governments who protect a regime that denies a whole nation its human rights—make the road harder.
And those who have influence over business and over government yet simply stand by and watch them do nothing – block the road and make the journey more difficult still.
And if there is one thing the regime in Burma does not need, it is help with blocking roads.
Having said all of this, we are confident that the forces behind us are more powerful than those that stand before us.
The people of Burma who refuse to be beaten in the face of harassment, brutality, or even murder—It is they who will make the road shorter.
The thousands of activists around the world, some of whom are in this room today—Who lobby, who campaign who refuse to tire until the cause is won—it is they who make the road shorter.
And as we meet today on the eve of the Asia Europe summit—Those politicians who are willing to speak out when speaking out brings criticism from powerful corporations and their own colleagues, and can threaten their own political careers—it is they who make the road shorter.
Burma has changed since Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party won the 1990 election. Hotels have now been built although they remain virtually empty, poverty-stricken communities have been forced out of cities to make those cities appear more beautiful to the few visitors that arrive, and cease-fires, not political settlements, have been signed with ethnic nationalities thus giving an impression and only an impression of peace. As Martin Luther King once said “Peace is not the absence of war, it is the presence of justice”—and not until the facade of normality that the regime is attempting to create has behind it the substance of true peace and justice can our struggle stop.
A young woman from the Methodist Church here in the UK who is campaigning for Democracy in Burma recently coined a new phrase. It’s called ‘Burmese Whispers’. It’s an idea she had after hearing stories of democratic resistance inside Burma. ‘Burmese Whispers’ is the idea that even in situations where speaking the truth can cost you dearly, nevertheless if enough people whisper the truth within homes, within communities and cities, across nations, across the globe, it will eventually become the loudest message heard. We must all take every opportunity to whisper the truth.
The truth that the regime in Burma would not have survived this long if it had not been for foreign investors and supportive governments.
The truth that helping to increase revenue for a regime which spends half of its budget on military spending whilst leaving its people in dire poverty, helps neither the people of Burma nor furthers their aspiration for a freer society.
The truth that while some governments have taken commendable action – the USA in particular for imposing investment sanctions on Burma – others are not doing enough. I urge the UK government to use the legal analysis published this week by the Burma Action Group to take a more forthright and proactive stance on Burma. Their analysis concludes that unilateral investment sanctions on Burma by the UK, or any other EU government, have a legal foundation. All that is required is the political will to impose them.
We would like the UK government whilst it has the Presidency of the European Union, to work with sympathetic countries such as Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland to forge ahead with investment sanctions. In time we hope the rest of Europe will follow, but until then, the UK can take a lead and show that it is truly possible to have ethics at the core of foreign policy.
At the same time we urge the European Union not to continue their attempt to undermine efforts made by those American states and cities who refuse to do business with companies working in Burma. The European Union should not use the World Trade Organisation’s disputes procedure to remove the sanctions that these states have imposed. We urge the Governments of Europe that even if they themselves are not prepared to act, that they have respect for others who are willing to put people before profit.
As for the ASEM summit. Asia’s current problems are obviously connected to a lack of accountable governance. If this is not recognised and if human rights and democracy are excluded from the ASEM agenda it will be a critical opportunity missed.
There is a ban on officials of the Burmese regime obtaining visas to enter the EU. Therefore even if they were part of the current ASEM process, which they are not, they would not have been welcome in Europe. This should be an important reminder to the regime that they will not truly be part of the international community until they change their repressive ways. The signal to them is a good one, but not yet strong enough – it must become the loudest message they can hear. If we all whisper the truth together they cannot fail to hear and take notice.
Thank you.

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