Response to Recent Australian Foreign Policy Initiatives on
7th September 2000
ISHR Speakers Forum, 7.30pm.
226 Kooyong Road, Toorak, Victoria
Prepared by Toe
Reviewed by Ye
Myint Htun [ Political Dept. - ABSDO Melbourne ]
The development and maintenance of civil society - free associations
of citizens joined together to work for common concerns or
implement social, cultural or political initiatives- depend
upon the citizens being able to enjoy fundamental freedoms:
freedom of thought, opinion, expression, association and movement.
Underscoring and defending these freedoms must be an independent
judiciary and the guarantee of the rule of law (Liddell:2000).
In Burma today, none of these conditions
There is no freedom of the press in Burma:
government censorship is heavy-handed and pervasive. Neither
is there any freedom of association- there are no independent
trade unions or non-government organisation. Where independent
organisations do exist, they are censored and mostly outlawed.
Burma is a highly authoritarian state,
and the militarys administrative reforms since 1988
have all been aimed at greater centralization of economic
and political power. This is perhaps hardly surprising given
the role of professional groups, students unions and Sangha
organizations in the uprising of 1988.
There is no sign as yet that the State Peace and Development
Council (SPDC) will change its centralizing trend. In
1997, within days of its creation, divisional, state and township
level Peace and Development Councils were formed, with a higher
prevalence of military personnel than the previous Law and
Order Restoration Councils. Given this situation, any moves
towards civil society can only take place at the most local
of local levels or for the most short-lived events - in sections
of the village, among church congregations or around Buddhist
monasteries- where they cannot be perceived to be a threat
to the state.
Whether such local initiatives will ever,
or be allowed to, develop into national civil society-like
structures is very doubtful. It is here that international
governments and NGOs have to be most careful: supporting local
initiatives, especially if the support is financial as well
as 'technical', could result in them gaining the unwanted
attention of officials in Rangoon who may then either co-opt
the group, or prevent them from operating freely (Liddell:
It is with these key points in mind that
I would like now to consider recent Australian government
initiatives to engage with the Burmese military on issues
of civil society, in particular the allocation of half a million
dollars to a human rights training program for military-appointed
civil servants, and the idea of the establishment of an independent
human rights commission in Burma. I apologise in advance for
not having sufficient time to address my opinions in detail.
Time restrictions do not allow this.
Australias current record on Burma
is an embarrassment to the Australian people, but hardly surprising.
The Australian government has consistently refused to adopt
trade sanctions against Burma, despite increasing economic
and political pressure mounted against the Burmese military
by almost the entire Western world. Australia pursues a half-backed,
ill-informed policy of neither encouraging nor promoting trade
and relations with Burma. A recent DFAT budget allocation
to run a human rights training program in Burma for military-
picked civil servants, in the context of Burmas political,
social and economic reality, appears as U Tin Oo, Deputy Chairman
of the NLD states, misguided.
Of greater concern, this strategy embarrassingly
appears to comprise the current governments entire foreign
affairs policy on Burma. In a recent statement made to a public
meeting in Melbourne, Mr. Downer stated that he did not regard
Aung San Suu Kyis party as the legal Burmese government
and that he would continue to interact with the Burmese military
regime as Burmas legitimate government.
On this point alone, Mr. Downers
strategy is counter-productive to the entire Burmese pro-democracy
movements strategy, which does NOT recognise the legitimacy
of the parties and representatives elected in the 1990 elections.
The Burmese community in Australia has
repeatedly called upon the Australian Government to cease
its human rights training program with Burma's military dictatorship
for following reasons. The program only legitimises and gives
succour to a brutal military regime.
We are very concerned that those attending
the training will not be "civil servants" but rather
servants of the repressive military regime. They will be military
personnel disguised as civilians and ex-military personnel
who will claim they are civil servants from the ministries
of the Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs. In reality, they
are active agents of a repressive military bureaucracy.
The provision of such human rights training is the first step
in Australia providing assistance for the development
of a "Human Rights Commission" in Burma. It will
assist the regime in developing a more sophisticated 'human
rights' language designed to disguise its gross human rights
abuses, and to divert international attention, thus perpetuating
military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi stated that it is like training
a tiger to be guard a rabbit.
I would like to take a moment to reflect on Burmas ability
to adhere to the Principles Relating to the Status and
Functioning of National Institutions for the Protection and
Promotion of Human Rights (Paris Principles), which set out
the minimum international standards for such things.
1. Independence of an human rights commission
guaranteed by statute or constitution
A human rights commission is a state sponsored and funded
entity established by an act of parliament with the broad
objective of promoting and protecting human rights. Burma
does not have a constitution in force. From 1974-1988 Burma
had a constitution that gave the state absolute power and
people no absolute rights. In 1988 the constitution was suspended.
From 1993 onwards, the military have been drafting a new one
under the pretext of a national convention. It
must be asked whether a credible commission could be established
in a country that has no rule or law, a judiciary subject
to executive (military) powers and no functioning civil society.
2. Autonomy from government
Burma has no legal institutions that function independently
of the executive (or military) and there is nothing to indicate
that a human rights commission would be an exception.
3. Pluralism, including in membership
Burma has a highly polarised society with strong religious,
ethnic and political divisions and it would be unlikely that
a non-partisan institution could be established under military
4. Broad mandate based on universal human
The Burmese military has argued against the universality of
human rights for Burma at the UN Human Rights Commission and
in various regional forums. It cannot be relied on to protect
the universality of human rights in any legislation that it
5. Adequate powers of investigation
Fact-finding mechanisms that function independently of the
executive (military) are needed. In Burma, there are no human
rights NGOs or other institutions that investigate human
rights violations, and outside interventions receive a hostile
response from the military.
6. Sufficient resources
Considering Burma is suffering a severe economic crisis and
defence spending is estimated at 55% of the GDP, it is unlikely
that Burma would be able to prioritise the allocation of resources
to an independent commission over health and education spending.
DFAT and other supporters of the initiative admit that even
if a commission was established, there would be some time
before it would operate effectively. The legacy of a human
rights commission in Burma before democratic rule is established
could be difficult to dismantle and replace with a more effective
(Source: Coakley: 1999)
In conclusion, we seriously doubt that
the military regime would be prepared to establish a genuine
independent human rights institution in accordance with the
The principal problem in Burma is not
around lack of knowledge of human rights amongst people, but
that of absolute repression of fundamental freedoms under
military rule. It is an insult to the intelligence of the
Burmese people that they have no appreciation of human rights
and that the military do not know that what they do is wrong.
Aung San Suu Kyi in a recent television interview with journalist
Ginny Stein contended that the problem in Burma was not a
lack of human rights education, but a problem of the honesty
of those in power. In reference to the recent incident at
Dala, the Burmese military know very well that people in Burma
possess a fundamental human right to move freely around their
own country. The problem is that the military wish to restrict
that right in order to remain in power over the country.
It is for this reason that the people
of Burma have struggled for a return to democracy and the
enjoyment of human rights. This struggle has been waged since
1962. The people of Burma have made untold sacrifices for
this cause and continue to make untold sacrifices. The recent
unjust harassment of Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues in
the Dalah standoff is testimony to this.
The Australian government was conspicuously
silent through last weeks roadside stand-off. Australias
embassy in Burma refused to join the British and US Embassies
in seeking access to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during the nine
days that she was blockaded by the military. The foreign Minister
made no public statement in defence of her freedom of movement
until a belated comment on the 4th September.
In July, Australias ambassador to
Rangoon advised the Howard government that;
There are clearly no grounds for
optimism in the SPDCs unchanging approach to opponents
of the regime. Nor do observers in Rangoon detect any signs
that the regime is willing to bend in the direction of political
dialogue or any hints that meaningful movement towards transition
to a freely elected government is contemplated. Rather, all
the indicators point to regime being determined to remain
in power at all cost, allowing only marginal reforms in the
economy and society.
The question must be asked, does the Australian
government wish to work in tandem with the pro-democracy movement
in Burma, or in direct contradiction? I believe, strongly,
that the will of the Australian people is not to perpetuate
military rule in Burma by the actions of one government, but
to instead, shorten that probability and build lasting and
fundamental changes for Burma.
Minister Downer has consistently stated that he wants to see
a genuine dialogue on political reform between the regime,
the NLD and representatives of the ethnic minorities
occur. He has made numerous claims that he will continue his
efforts, both bilaterally and through the international community,
to progress genuine reform in Burma. It is the Burmese
oppositions contention that Downer has not fulfilled
his commitment so far. His speeches amount to a lot of hot
Instead of listening to the democratic opposition in Burma,
and co-operating with the international community to take
concerted actions against the regime, he has made moves to
engage with the regime on the mere pretext that neither the
U.S. policy of isolating Burma, and ASEAN's constructive engagement
policy, has not worked.
The Minister has also justified his policy by
stating that Australia may be able to persuade the regime
towards a significant improvement in human rights. In reality,
Downer is promoting bilateral relations with the military. At
best Australia is playing up to the regime, at worst further
entrenching military rule, by assisting the regime to use
human rights discourses to defend their rule.
Independently highly publicised short-term efforts by individual
nations like Australia only serve to thwart concerted,
long-term strategies for change. We believe that concerted,
co-ordinated international action is essential to bring
about positive change and to bring an end to human rights
abuses. We believe that the actions of the Australian
government are expressly counter-productive to bringing an
end to military rule and human rights violations in Burma.
We call upon the Australian Government to immediately cease
engagement with the illegitimate military regime who continue
to commit gross human rights violations, and to take more
effective action against them, until they have entered into
dialogue with the NLD, for an effective transition to democracy.
We would like to see a foreign policy
commitment on Burma that makes appropriate engagements with
the democratic opposition. A radical suggestion- why doesnt
Mr. Downer make an additional allocation of funding to the
NLD so that they may also undertake a similar human rights
education program in Burma, in an effort to assist Burmese
people develop the tools that they need to bring about the
changes that they wish. A Human Rights Commission managed
by the military is something that Burma does not need.