As intractable as the situation in Burma may seem, Australia has policy options for making a positive impact on human rights there. Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. There are strict limits on basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly. The intelligence and security services are omnipresent. Censorship is draconian. More than 2,100 political prisoners suffer in Burma’s squalid prisons, including many members of the political opposition, courageous protestors who peacefully took to the streets in August and September 2007, and individuals who criticised the government for its poor response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. All have been sentenced after sham trials that often take place in the prisons themselves.
Military abuses connected to armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas continue. Corruption and mismanagement have made Burma one of the poorest countries in Asia.
There is no mystery in the military’s long-term intentions. The ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has been totally open about its plans to stage-manage an electoral process in 2010 that will ensure continued military rule with a civilian face. The SPDC clearly hopes that this will mollify Australia, the United States, and other countries that oppose military rule.
Following the reprehensible verdict against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in August, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith committed Australia to a stronger approach to Burma: ‘Australia will now consult closely with the international community – including the United Nations and Australia’s ASEAN partners – on the need to put even more pressure on the Burmese regime to move down the path of democracy.’
In fact, all three prongs of Australia’s engagement approach – diplomacy, sanctions and humanitarian aid – can be made more effective.
The Australian government should try to speak to the Burmese government at the highest levels. But a couple of cautions. First, it is important that more intensive diplomacy does not lead into the trap of making improved relations the primary goal of Australian policy. The protection of the rights of Burmese and a genuine and credible political reform process need to be the primary goals for Australia’s policy.
Second, Australia should keep in mind that the Burmese officials who normally speak to foreigners – whether the foreign minister or the functionaries involved in the post-Nargis reconstruction – have no real authority in the government and are probably as scared of Than Shwe and other senior leaders as anyone else. Many foreign diplomats and others who have invested a great deal of time and energy in pursuing relations with the second tier of leadership have told Human Rights Watch that it was time largely wasted. Those who do have the authority – Senior General Than Shwe, Vice-Senior General Maung Aye, Lt. General Thura Shwe Mann, Prime Minister Thein Sein, and key regional commanders – usually don’t engage with outsiders.
Human Rights Watch strongly recommends that Australia appoint its own special envoy, with a direct line to the Foreign Minister. Vigorous diplomacy is needed with China, India, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other influential actors, to ensure that new revenue streams are not made available to the Burmese government.
Australia might also consider supporting the establishment of a Burma Contact Group or some form of multilateral grouping to meet and regularly discuss diplomatic engagement with the Burmese government on a range of issues. This could have the effect of converging the views and policies of China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Australia, the EU and UN, and gradually minimise the ability of the SPDC to play states off against each other. As the United Nations has long been the focal point for diplomacy on Burma, Australia should also support the continuation of a special envoy of the secretary-general.
Australia imposed financial sanctions on Burma on 24 October 2007, under the Banking (Foreign Exchange) Regulations 1959. It prohibits the transfer of funds to 463 members of the SPDC or their close business associates or family members, without approval from the Reserve Bank. Those sanctions were reviewed and modified in October 2008.
At the same time, Australia has measures it is not yet using – for example, denying foreign banks access to the Australian financial system if they are holding targeted Burmese accounts or otherwise undermining Australian measures. EU states have been noticeably slow to implement full financial sanctions; Australia should continue to set a good example and then press European countries to follow suit. Slow implementation and poor coordination internationally have kept financial sanctions from realising their potential.
Australia recently gave AUD$3.2 million to assist Rohingya Muslims in Western Burma, a deplorable human rights situation which gained international media attention early in 2009 when thousands of Rohingya men and boys washed up on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Australia’s provision of AUD$55 million to assist the survivors of Cyclone Nargis is also generous and urgently needed, as is the 2009 AusAID budget of AUD$29 million to fund health, livelihoods and protection programs in Burma. However, Australian funding could and should increase, especially in assisting communities in conflict zones in Eastern Burma, something Australia is not doing now.
But, again, some cautions. First, the cause of Burma’s humanitarian problems is not a lack of available resources. Burma has made gas deals with Thailand that provide the government its largest source of revenue, worth approximately US$2 billion annually. A new deal to supply natural gas to China via an overland pipeline will significantly add to that sum. Burma’s leaders also count on large earnings from sales of gems and timber, and ongoing hydroelectric projects are expected to generate additional lucrative export revenue.
Despite these large revenue sources, the military government spends next to nothing on the welfare of its people. The largest share of the state budget is allocated to the military, as much as 40 percent, while combined social spending is estimated to be a paltry 0.8 per cent of GDP for 2008/09. Donor discussions with the SPDC over the provision of humanitarian assistance should not neglect the government’s ability to contribute substantially to such assistance. Humanitarian aid is different from development aid. Australia, like other countries, should not provide development aid until there is significant political reform, progress on human rights, better governance, and the possibility of consulting civil society and local communities in setting development goals.
Helping the Burmese people is one of the most difficult and intractable problems the world has faced in recent decades. Strong Australian leadership can make a significant difference in the years ahead.
Carroll Bogert is Associate Director of Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org)