Keep talking about (and dancing for) Burma

In May, Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal to ‘use your liberty to promote ours’ will be at the heart of Brighton Festival (UK) as she becomes Guest Director from afar. But how else can we use our freedom to support those denied it in Burma?

Photo by Clinton Steeds under a Creative Commons licence.

Nearly five months since the fraudulent elections staged by Burma’s military junta in November, the lack of any genuine progress towards democratization or an improvement in the human rights situation is deeply worrying.

The elections were neither free nor fair; they categorically failed to meet internationally recognised standards. Vote-rigging was widespread on behalf of the military junta’s political party, the USDP, whose overwhelming majority in both houses, coupled with the 25 per cent of seats constitutionally reserved for the military itself, allows this effective dictatorship to unilaterally amend the already deeply flawed 2008 Constitution as it sees fit.

The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the days following the election was well received by all who campaign for justice and human rights in Burma. But her release was, of course, a smokescreen deployed by the military junta to detract attention from the widespread domestic and international condemnation of the electoral process. The number of political dissidents and campaigners incarcerated in Burma’s appalling prisons system has doubled since 2007 and now stands at 2076.

Attacks on ethnic groups, many of whom were denied a say at the polls, have continued since November, and a recent report by the European Burma Network confirmed that ongoing human rights abuses under the ‘new’ government include extrajudicial executions, rape, mass use of forced labour, use of human minesweepers, recruitment of child soldiers, land confiscation, forced displacement and military attacks against civilians.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, such abuses constitute possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet no concrete action has been taken by the international community. What can be done? The global campaign for democracy and human rights in Burma, of which Burma Campaign UK is integral, continues to work tirelessly to push for a UN investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. Belgium recently became the 14th country to officially support this position.

But what can we do, you and I? The answer from Burma, elegantly articulated in 1997 by Aung San Suu Kyi, is simple: members of the international community should ‘use [their] liberty to support ours.’ Interpretation of this is purely subjective, and this has led to a glorious multitude of different responses (I know a guy in Scotland who spent 2 years walking ‘barefoot for Burma’ following the suppression of the monk-led uprising in 2007), but one in particular caught my eye a few weeks ago.

In October this year, Ben Hammond, a 32-year-old from south London, will attempt to break the World Record for the longest uninterrupted dance (131 hours), in the process raising money to get his educational charity, LearnBurma, up and running. As a citizenship teacher and former community organiser, Hammond clearly recognizes the importance of switching kids on to issues from an early age, before apathy kicks in, and equipping them with the tools to investigate, challenge and question what’s going on in the world around them. In this way, LearnBurma could be a powerful and dynamic force for raising the profile of Burma and encouraging action to affect change.

The year-long preparation for the world record attempt is called Free to Dance, an initiative that has seen Hammond dancing all over the UK, learning to dance dozens of different dances and organizing flashmob-style silent discos. He’s now training to dance the London Marathon, before dancing non-stop through Glastonbury Festival, and in August from John O’Groats to Land’s End. The idea is to get Free to Dance to as wide an audience as possible and to get people talking about the situation in Burma.

It’s about using our freedom to support those who, five months after elections, are still not free.

Are you Free to Dance? Join in!

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