My fellow Elders and I place an empty chair for Aung San Suu Kyi at all of our meetings. We drape the chair in Burmese silk as a reminder not only of her continued suffering, but of that of more than 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma.
This year elections are due to take place in Burma – the first since the rejected win of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990. Sadly, this is not a sign of promise that one might hope for; these elections are likely to be deeply flawed and lack any credibility.
In recent months, highly restrictive provisions in political party law have forced the NLD to disband. The new laws forbid prisoners to be members of political parties – Aung San Suu Kyi can no longer be a member of the party she used to lead. The NLD therefore decided not to register as a political party for the election, as key members remain incarcerated. The party has ceased to have legal status and cannot operate politically in any meaningful way.
The opposition in Burma is divided between those who think participation in the elections is wrong, and those who are trying to make the best of a flawed situation. My fellow Elders and I are deeply sympathetic to the difficult decisions the people face – and we pay tribute to the ordinary citizens who are bravely trying to improve their country’s future.
It is important to remember that elections are just one part of progress towards a sustainable peace. Burma is a deeply fractured society; tensions between the government and ethnic groups have caused serious instability. Burma’s neighbours have already experienced the effects of conflict in border areas and have the greatest interest in trying to prevent future division.
With such deep fractures in society, the country needs an avenue for dialogue. My fellow Elders and I urge ASEAN and the international community to assist the government, opposition, ethnic minorities and religious groups of Burma to begin a process of reconciliation. Without a way to talk and reconcile with one another, the people will never achieve the peace and prosperity they deserve.
What is more, the international community must increase the levels of humanitarian assistance that it sends to the people of Burma, where one third of children under the age of 5 are malnourished. Burma receives less aid than most of the poorest countries in the world – only $4 per person compared to $50 per person for Sudan.
Burma is led by an oppressive and misguided regime and its people suffer greatly for it. Aung San Suu Kyi is an advocate for democracy and human rights. She stands for the right of her people to live free and dignified lives. Flawed elections will not achieve this goal but the international community should make every effort to help Burma’s divided peoples find a peaceful and prosperous way forward.
Mary Robinson is a member of The Elders (www.theelders.org). She was the first woman President of Ireland and is the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.