Wed 28 Oct 2009
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Australia has an often overlooked key role to play in drawing military ruled Burma out of its isolation, and is well placed to play a prominent supporting position in international efforts to engage the ruling State Peace and Development Council.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith are tough talking and principled on human rights in Burma, especially after the September 2007 Buddhist monk-led uprising was brutally crushed, the initial official blocking of foreign relief aid after the May 2008 cyclone, and the political show trial this year of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Kevin Rudd called Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi’s conviction and sentencing to a further 18 months under house arrest in August a “new low for the Burmese regime.”
This is precisely what the SPDC needs to hear. The message roughly is: “We don’t like what you’re doing, but we are dead-set on continuing to help your people.”
Australia can recalibrate its Burma policy for more bilateral effect and multilateral influence in three key areas: diplomacy, humanitarian assistance and sanctions.
Australia is already outspoken toward the SPDC. This must continue, and can in an important way if the government appoints a specific Burma envoy to coordinate bilateral diplomatic efforts, AusAID programs and multilateral initiatives in the United Nations and Asean.
The United States has congressional legislative provisions to appoint its own Burma envoy and policy advisor, but after nearly two years has yet to do so. Australia can set an example by taking this important initiative first.
The appointment of country-specific envoys would not just bolster the “Good Offices” mission of the UN secretary general, which has unfortunately made little progress so far with the SPDC, but could also propel the formation of a “contact group” of key states on Burma — China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia — to move beyond the perception that international criticism of Burma just emanates from Western countries.
The SPDC thrives on divide and rule, domestically and internationally, so the aim must be to speak with a unified voice. Australia and Indonesia, as key middle-ranking states in the region, and largely of similar mind if different public statements on Burma, could take the lead in forming such a contact group.
Donate Generously, but Fairly
On humanitarian assistance, Australia is already one of the best donors, addressing Burma’s immense developmental challenges of poverty alleviation, deteriorating health conditions, and human rights protection.
AusAID provisions to Burma are an annual $26 million, with an additional $50 million for post-cyclone relief.
Much of this funding goes in the right direction. If anything, Australia could be more generous, something that could be said of most international humanitarian donors who are only now realizing the immense needs inside Burma. The reality is that with all the impediments and ineptitude placed in donors’ paths by the SPDC, a lot of good can be done by helping communities survive the capricious and self-centered regime.
Australia is also very generous in its acceptance of refugees from Burma, resettling thousands of mostly ethnic-Karen from long standing camps situated on the Thailand-Burma border, while also continuing to fund agencies supporting an estimated 140,000 civilians still languishing in those camps. However, there appears to be reluctance within the Australian bureaucracy to support urgently needed humanitarian assistance efforts for Burmese civilians in conflict zones, often erroneously termed “cross-border assistance.”
In fact, supporting health and livelihood initiatives “cross-border” is actually providing humanitarian assistance to Burma: All of the existing programs in conflict areas are conducted by ethnic Burma groups, often on the run from the SPDC army, and necessarily clandestine, but definitely needed. Providing financial assistance to these projects from Thailand, China, India or Bangladesh is more efficient, realistic and practical than going through Yangon, as most UN and other international aid groups must do.
Target Sanctions Effectively
Last is the vexed issue of sanctions. It is impossible to conclude that international sanctions have had their desired effect. That is, for the SPDC to respect the human rights of the Burma people. Yet they retain a certain symbolic utility, reminding the regime of how their reprehensible actions transgress international norms of acceptable behavior.
Removing the sanctions too fast sends the wrong message, especially when the SPDC makes their repeal such a prominent condition for negotiation. Sanctions, therefore, have a prime usefulness, and should be scrapped only incrementally in line with significant concessions from the regime.
Also, Australia specifically blocks transfers of funds or payments to or from people who benefit from military rule in Burma, yet does not bar other types of financial services and transactions. Most notably, Australia’s current measures do not fully freeze assets held by such persons in Australia, nor clearly block dealings with those individuals that involve Australian persons and institutions operating from other countries. Firm steps are needed to fully enforce sanctions so that key Burma officials named as targets are not able to derive benefit from assets in Australia or handled by Australian institutions.
The nation must not wait for evidence of concessions from the SPDC to repeal its present sanctions. It should wrest the initiative back from the regime by recalibrating its targeted measures now. It can do this in two important ways. First, by tightening up its list of SPDC officials and by including specific key companies or Burma military-controlled entities with direct links to the regime. Second, Australia can make more effort in coordinating sanctions with the United States, EU, Switzerland and Canada to target key individuals, both military and civilian, who bear responsibility for abuses and whose considerable financial support of the SPDC could undermine these sanctions. These individuals are at the apex of the system inside Burma and susceptible to this kind of pressure.
Listen to the Lady
In a letter sent by Suu Kyi to President Than Shwe on Sept. 25, the detained democratic leader urged negotiations on lifting sanctions, and specifically requested leave to consult with the Australian ambassador in Rangoon, something she did recently (albeit with a lower official because the ambassador was on holiday at the time), as well as the British ambassador and a representative of the European Union.
This is an important step, and countries with sanctions in place should consult not just with Suu Kyi but other opposition figures and business leaders to gradually repeal sanctions — but only when all political prisoners are released and there has been genuine progress on opening up the political system to encourage community participation ahead of the elections next year.
In the interim, tightening specific targeted sanctions is one way of focusing the SPDC’s attention on what they stand to lose from treating enhanced talks with the international community with their instinctively cynical self-interest.
Australia’s Burma policy should be lauded for its considered balance and the continued expression of support for a free and democratic Burma by most if not all members of the federal Parliament. With just a few policy tweaks, a little more money and a substantial investment in multilateral diplomacy, Australia could provide the kind of renewed international and regional guidance on engaging Burma that is now desperately needed.
David Scott Mathieson is Burma researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.