Dealing with Burma the Australian Way
By Dr Myint Cho Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Breaking ranks with the international community, Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer became the first Western official to visit Burma in decades. It is clear that despite calls from the international community the junta has no real commitment to improving human rights or bringing about real political change, in Burma. It only took 24 hours in Burma to confirm that for Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer. After meeting with junta leaders and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Downer told the world that the junta has no current plans to discuss national reconciliation with the opposition. He also told the Thai Foreign Minster in Bangkok that the time had come to increase the pressure on Burma. Now, Australia says it will put more public and moral pressure on Rangoon to show good faith and begin talks with the opposition. On his visit to Burma, Downer’s remarks made many observers think that Australia was considering a policy shift on Burma. Unlike most Western democratic countries, Australia previously believed it could persuade the junta with friendly "limited engagement" to respect human rights and restore democracy in Burma. Australia never held much faith in isolating Burma and has continued to maintain diplomatic ties with Rangoon. Still, Downer seemed reluctant to address the worsening human rights situation in Burma, particularly the widespread and systematic rape of women from ethnic nationalities. His statement regarding aid disappointed observers again. He committed to funding more human rights training in Burma and to providing another AUD $3 million (US $1.7 million) over three years to Rangoon for nutrition and health projects with a focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and care. Australia also pledged support for the junta’s efforts to redraft the constitution. Although Canberra embargoed the sale of military equipment to Burma after the 1988 uprising and coup, Australia has not committed to sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. The official line from Australian diplomats is that Australia neither encourages nor discourages investment in Burma. It has also refused to impose visa restrictions on senior junta officials. Downer has argued that the isolation policy posed by the West and Asean’s constructive engagement policy have failed. Now it’s time he admitted that Australia’s approach has failed too. Downer should realize that the talks and a few political developments, including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and some political prisoners, happened because of a mix of domestic economic problems and international pressure. Developments did not take place because of Asean’s constructive engagement or Australia’s limited engagement policy. Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic leaders have already commented on Australian foreign policy in Burma and questioned the value of training the junta’s officials. Downer, may be the only one who believes human rights training can forward democratic reform. Realistically, it will only help the military develop propaganda and disguise the truth about human rights abuses. Just as it did with human rights training in Indonesia during the Suharto regime, the Australian government wants to waste taxpayer’s money on a futile exercise once again. The junta seems to be using the release of some political prisoners and the possibility of talks as a showcase to ease international pressure. By giving a little, the junta hopes to gain legitimacy, have sanctions lifted, attract resources and consolidate its shaky position. Foreign leaders like Downer should not be fooled. But Downer’s biggest mistake may be his support for the state-managed drafting of the constitution. With Downer’s support, junta leaders may achieve their goal of a new constitution that guarantees military supremacy in Burmese politics. At this very sensitive stage, it is essential that the wrong signals are not sent. With signals like pledges of humanitarian assistance from Australia and Japan, the military has enough fuel to delay talks with Aung San Suu Kyi. The concern is that the unilateral initiatives of individual countries, particularly Japan and Australia, may jeopardize the talks. Coordinated domestic and international pressure must be maintained in order to ensure that the talks achieve real results. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, UN rapporteur on human rights in Burma, recently said that the situation in Burma will not improve until there is "substantive progress in the process of national reconciliation and political transition". Pushing the junta towards substantive progress should be the international community’s main objective. Australia must heed the criticism from Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy movement. Australia must press the generals to release all political prisoners and encourage dialogue on national reconciliation.

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