October 4: Co-operating with the junta on counter-terrorism strategies poses difficult moral questions, writes foreign editor Greg Sheridan

Australia faces a dilemma over an approach from the ruling military junta in Burma to increase the assistance it gets from us in counter-terrorism.

The dilemma is as exquisite as it is simple. The Burmese Government is, by a vast distance, the worst regime in Southeast Asia in terms of gross human rights abuses.

Several Southeast Asian countries are not democracies, but Burma’s breaches of human rights have been notable and consistent. It has a record of seeking unconventional weapons. It has a record of ethnic-based murder and forced servitude. It has comprehensively ignored the results of the one democratic election it conducted in recent decades. And it allows a substantial opium trade to flourish within its borders. It allows no freedom of expression and very little in the way of outside reporting. It has recently come on to the UN Security Council agenda.

As a result of all this, the US and the European Union have adopted policies of effective isolation towards Burma. Asian countries have adopted the opposite approach. China has become Burma’s strategic patron and guarantor, and its chief source of diplomatic contact and military co-operation. India, witnessing China’s strategic dominance in Burma, has also stepped up its own diplomatic engagement with Rangoon.

Most of the nations of Southeast Asia, although acutely embarrassed by the bad name Burma brings to ASEAN, have nonetheless not tried at all to isolate Burma. This is because they must engage Burma in order to have any hope of affecting the way it affects them. Thailand is the prime example, with its huge, porous border with Burma.

Every day hundreds of Burmese illegal immigrants, many of them HIV-positive, cross the border, often carrying drugs, or with an intention to participate in crime in Thailand, or just seeking a better life, but inevitably bringing with them vast problems for the Thai state.

Canberra has a policy of limited engagement with Burma, which sits somewhere between the US and European policies on the one hand, and the Asian policies on the other.

The war on terror adds an acute new dimension to the dilemma. If terrorists use Burma as a base to conduct an operation in, say, Bangkok, which kills hundreds of Australians, there will be nobody saying to the Australian Government, well at least you kept the purity of your policy intact. Instead, they will damn Canberra for ignoring a glaring hole in the regional counter-terrorist effort.

But, sensibly, Australia has not been ignoring that gaping hole altogether. Canberra has provided a lot of counter-terrorist training to Burma already, though this has never been mentioned publicly. A range of Australian agencies has been involved in training Burmese counter-terrorist agencies. The Immigration Department, for example, has helped with immigration intelligence training. The Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation has helped on monitoring radioactive sources.

Burmese law enforcement officers have been involved in Australian courses on major investigation management, post-blast incident management, and the international management of serious crime. AUSTRACK has provided training on tracking international terrorist finances. And perhaps most significant of all, Burmese law enforcement officers have attended courses at the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Co-operation in Semarang. JCLEC is run jointly by the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian national police.

All this training has so far been carried out in an ASEAN context. It has not been bilateral Australia-to-Burma-only assistance.

However, it is still Australian assistance to Burma and therefore still poses a moral dilemma. Could any of the Burmese institutions involved in learning from Australians misuse that knowledge in domestic repression?

It’s pretty hard to see how the skills involved in managing a bomb site could be used to suppress dissidents. On the other hand, if you can track terrorist finances perhaps you can track dissident finances a bit better as well; if you can track terrorists more effectively you can probably track the movements of political refugees more effectively.

In the real world there is no getting away from these moral dilemmas. As one official puts it, one question has to be whether providing such training is likely to help protect Australian lives. The answer is undoubtedly yes.

There are many reasons why Australia provides so much counter-terrorist training to Southeast Asia. The main reason is, to improve, directly by training, the capacity of counter-terrorist agencies in the region. A related reason is to increase the degree to which Southeast Asian agencies from different countries talk to each other.

Terrorists flow effortlessly across borders and if the Malaysians didn’t speak to the Thais, for example, or the Filipinos didn’t speak to the Indonesians, this would be disastrous for effective counter-terrorism.

A further reason, and one that needs to be expressed with a certain delicacy, is that providing such training provides Australian agencies with invaluable knowledge and contacts. These are useful always, but they are critical if an incident happens that involves Australians.

The Burmese state, apart from being brutal, is also ramshackle. We don’t want it to persecute its citizens but we do want it to stop its territory, or its citizens, being used for terrorist purposes. It would be extremely foolish just to ignore Burma.

The broad balance of the counter-terrorist story in the region is quite positive. The southern Philippines is becoming a much less secure haven for the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiah. We are halfway through the traditional terrorist bombing season and JI has not perpetrated a new attack in Indonesia. Operationally, JI is under a lot of pressure.

In the southern Philippines the critical outside actor is the US. Australia is about to embark on greater training with the armed forces of The Philippines but it is the Americans, especially the CIA and the US Navy SEALS, who are providing the most active assistance to the Filipinos in their war against the terrorists, especially the murderous Abu Sayyaf gang.

Under The Philippines constitution the Americans cannot take combat action themselves on Philippines soil, but they equip and train the Filipinos, locate the enemy and lead the Filipinos to the brink of action. It is a universal assessment that the Filipinos are much more effective when they’ve got the Americans helping them.

This underlines the importance of the story, first broken in The Australian last year and confirmed in The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward’s book, State of Denial, this week, that Australia now has unprecedented access to US intelligence, including an exemption from the no-foreign-eyes rule for US intelligence concerning the war on terror. Although Australia possesses great expertise on Southeast Asia, the Americans certainly have expertise, and intelligence, on the southern Philippines, a central battleground in the Southeast Asian war on terror, that we do not.

Now the Burmese would like more assistance in their counter-terrorist efforts. Frankly, we’d be ill-advised to decline.