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                         Burma – Should we do anything?1
                                                                                        Shan Lone2




8 August 2000 marks the 39th year of military rule in Burma. It gives Australians another
chance to reflect upon the inactivity of our government, foreign bureaucrats and
diplomats and the media about the situation there. On the same day in 1988 thousands
of Burmese monks and students were killed in democracy marches in the streets of
Burma’s capital, Rangoon.

Of the many lessons for the international community arising from the East Timor
experience, the less obvious is perhaps the fact that ‘comfortable democracies’ such as
Australia have created moral vacuums within which little interest is shown by the
majority into human rights abuses abroad, that is, until the powerful forces in the media
choose to pursue the matter. Conversely, we are largely inured to the AAP reports of
poverty or famine throughout Africa and countries like Bangladesh and India after years
of media coverage. Similarly, the status quo in East Timor had also been lingering for
decades. Suddenly, almost over-night, it became almost respectable to decry the
injustices that were occurring there. Just when it seemed likely that the national
consciousness would be again unmoved by the portraits of injustice beamed back by
brave overseas journalists, Australians overwhelmingly responded to the Minogue-
Farnham endorsements and celebrated the reluctant war hero, the laconic Major-General
Cosgrove.

What prompted this national fervour? Was it the accumulated guilt of past policy
failures, the inherent injustices of the Indonesian occupation, and legitimate concerns
about the non-acceptance of the free elections or was it just the boast of a nation that
had experienced a successful military involvement in the international arena? It may be
that it was a little of everything but there is no escaping that the Australian consciousness
is now obliged to consider the role it should be playing in international and particularly
regional political affairs. The situations in Fiji and the Solomon Islands presently provide
circumstances for Australia to flex diplomatic and economic muscle. Perhaps it is also
time for Australians to consider our position on Burma, a country shrouded in mystery
for most Australians; the last of our closest neighbours to still be under military rule.
After nearly four decades, the international response to Burma is a litmus test for
democracy, just like South Africa and East Timor. Australia is perfectly positioned and
perhaps even obliged to contribute significantly. Is one of the responsibilities that arise
from being the ‘lucky country’ to share that fortune throughout the region? This is not
merely about financial aid but rather the taking of an active interest and diplomatic
involvement in the plight of the people. In a recent paper3, Nicholas Cowdrey QC the
1
        This paper was first published on the internet magazine “Brisbane Tribe” in April 2000
2
        The writer is a Brisbane based criminal lawyer, born to Burmese parents in Burma, who
        migrated to Australia with his family as a child in 1969. His Burmese name has been used to
        protect some members of his family who remain living in Burma.
3
        The Just Rule of Law: Nicholas Cowdrey QC and Andrew Lipscomb, Southern Cross
        University Law Review, Special Issue – Restoring the Rule of Law in Burma.
                                                      2

Director of Public Prosecutions (NSW), makes a powerful point on the issue of the rule
of law and its connection with human rights –

“Human rights can be easily eroded – and all states potentially have the power to oppress. But a
democratic system that works well, in combination with as strong and independent judiciary and good
laws, greatly limits that potential. Short of that, the responsibility inevitably rests on individuals and
groups of individuals who are willing to stand up for human rights, at the expense of personal comfort
and security”.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Burma was occupied by the British, the Japanese
and the Americans. The Burmese people are accustomed to foreign interest and military
occupation. Some of the remaining architecture reflects this Anglo-colonial past, as does
the fact that until the 1960s most laws were still written in English and reflected British
common law. Yet, the people are culturally non-militaristic and in the main appear
satiated by a profound regard for spiritual strength through Buddhism.

In the late 1940s the British relinquished colonial rule. Burma was led at that time by a
nationalist hero U Aung San. In 1962 a General Ne Win seized political power in a coup
d’etat. He ‘nationalised’ all industry. Since then, an Orwellian process of information
control and the enactment of brutal and Draconian laws on public expression and
movement have neutered what was once a vibrant and rich country. Most people live in
poverty and fear. In 1988, thousands of students and monks were killed by the military
during peaceful pro-democracy protests in the streets of Rangoon. The world stopped
for images of Tienamen Square which occurred at the same time and where a handful
were killed, but did not even blink about Burma. In 1990 there were formal elections
which resulted in landslide victories4 for a democratic coalition headed by 1991 Nobel
Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung Sung Suu Kyi, (Aung San’s daughter). Most of the
elected representatives were arrested, driven underground or required to seek protection
overseas. Suu Kyi, after enduring house arrest for many years, remains a poignant voice
of peaceful and democratic dissent. In less than 50 years, a country which was as
prosperous as any other nation in Asia is now the poorest. There is in power a military
government which refuses to permit the elected democratic government to govern. The
nation is on its knees in poverty for the vast majority. Civil and institutional corruption
is manifest. Public discussion of political issues is prohibited. Fundamental human rights
are routinely and institutionally abused. Children are institutionally enslaved by poverty.

The situation in Burma has not attracted significant political interest within Australia.
This is probably because so few Burmese live here. Most that do live here are struggling
with the challenges of being migrants and refugees and remain fearful of repercussions to
their families if they were to agitate public discussion here. There is almost no mention of
Burma in the print media other than on tourism pages and rare documentaries on SBS
and snapshots on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent. My interest arises because I was born
in Burma and came to Australia as a child of migrant Burmese. My parents were in
essence political refugees although in a formal sense they migrated with the help of some
generous Australian friends. I was educated in Australian schools and despite the colour
of my skin and the slope in my eyes, I think of myself as an Australian. My children are
white, Burmese and Aboriginal. I have returned to Burma twice for brief visits in 1996
and 1999. Some of my family have returned to live in Burma.


4
         The NLD won 82% of the parliamentary seats.
                                              3

On my last visit I attempted to document child poverty. I had hoped to deliver up clear
contemporary evidence for the United Nations Humans Rights Committee. I did not
need to look too hard. From Rangoon, I got on the road to Mandalay. With my limited
Burmese I interviewed nearly everyone I came across. Sometimes I saw the sparkle of
survival, but usually it was a story of woe. I stayed at hotels and ate in restaurants where
almost every waiter or waitress was under 12 years old, had been working for years after
leaving behind their families in the rural areas, were paid less than $US1 per week and
from this supported their families. I spoke to children who were employed full-time
begging from tourists at temples to support their families. They were as young as 4 years
old. Busloads of international travellers, mesmerised by the beauty of sites, the grace of
the people and the cheapness of their accommodation did not seem to notice that the
necessary precondition for this luxurious travel experience was an underclass of people
suffering to service a corrupt tourism industry. I saw barefoot children carry rocks to
construct golf courses with helicopters of Korean and other Asian businessmen flying in
for a round of golf, being serviced by the local community and striking deals with
Burmese businessmen connected to the military government. I query whether any part
of their investments, other than an airstrip and a service road, touch the lives of the
children in these areas.

In transit in Bangkok I was taken by a contact to stay at the tallest hotel in Asia, which is
owned by a Burmese businessman. He is well connected with the military government.
Upon hearing that I was Burmese, living in Australia and working as a lawyer, he felt it
necessary to order a ‘free’ bottle of French wine and tell me of his life. He told me that
he had been to Australia and met Mike Gore and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and had
attended the opening of the Sanctuary Cove resort in Queensland. He urged me to stay
at a tourist hotel in Burma that he also owned. He told me of the endless opportunities
for investment in Burma exporting rice etc. He was obviously obscenely rich even by
Australian standards. As I drank his wine I pondered at how a man makes any money in
a country like Burma where the average wage is less than $US10 per month, let alone
accumulates enough foreign currency to build Asia’s tallest hotel. I next thought of his
rice export investment idea, just s few days later driving to Mandalay, as I watched a loin
clothed family with the wife holding an infant on hip, trudge through muddy tracks to
tend their rice paddies in the searing sun.

The situation in Burma is little different from that in East Timor, apartheid South Africa,
Marcos Philippines and numerous other struggles throughout the world. Ever since I
can remember the only consistent voices have come from expatriate groups and leftist
student activists proclaiming the plight of various peoples throughout the world who are
suffering as a result of undemocratic, military dictatorships in Chile, El Salvador, South
Africa and of course East Timor. Yet even in that forum there was rarely mention of
Burma. These groups were usually ineffective because student activism is nearly always
seen as amateur, simplistic, and polemic. Enthusiasm and indeed genuine interest in the
issues from the greater community is diluted by these perceptions. It is necessary to
remind us that dictatorships are evil not just in philosophical discussions; they in fact
survive due to the inactivity of otherwise good men and women. As a result, corruption
becomes rife, poverty prolific, and connected individuals become profoundly and
obscenely rich.

The United Nations Human rights committee appointed a special Rapporteur to report
about the situation in Burma about 5 years ago. He has been denied permission to even
enter the country. The military government denies that rights abuses exist; yet they are
                                             4

not prepared to be examined independently. The military government, because they are
in occupation, have a seat at the UN table when the elected government in exile does
not. Scandinavian countries provide support for the democratic government by
permitting radio broadcasts from Oslo and practical assistance in the presentation of UN
resolutions. Australia has yet to make its presence known in the international arena on
the issue other than the indication that we would assist the military government to set up
a Human Rights Commission – a move rejected by, amongst others, Aung San Suu Kyi.

My amateurish attempt to compile evidence for the special Rapporteur was unsuccessful.
Although I had made careful plans to have the digital film taken out of the country
safely, it was destroyed a day before I left. It was not government officials who rifled
through my bag and smashed the film cassettes. It was my first cousin who had heard
that I had taken shots of children and poverty. He is 35 years old, unskilled and
unemployed and lives with my aunt in one of the poorest parts of Rangoon. He sobbed
uncontrollably and would not let go of my feet, begging for forgiveness and justified his
actions by saying that he was scared of repercussions for the whole family if customs
officers found the cassettes. I pondered the divergence that our lives had taken when my
father bribed his way out of his country to bring his young family to Australia in 1969, to
seek freedom and prosperity while my cousin’s parents were unable to leave. I could not
bring myself to tell him of the arrangements I had in place, and I immediately forgave
him (although the words did not come out), sobbed with him and attempted to comfort
him. I was awestruck at the fear of the military that abounds in the community. They
must have been brutal to leave such fear.

What then is the necessary ingredient before nations like Australia are so moved by the
plight of others such that they actively embrace another nation’s struggle? It cannot be
that it is merely the protection of the national interests or international security that
prompts military intervention.

The answer may lie in the maturation of Australia as a nation. Despite white Australia’s
relatively short existence, it has a burgeoning identity. It is a democratic force in the
Asia-Pacific region. Although Australia has historically lacked determinative influence in
the global political equation, such was the success, and the nature of the response from
the United States about Australia’s role in East Timor, that this could well change
significantly. Moreover the Howard government still enjoys the afterglow of Interfet in
the local electorate. Despite the limitations of influence due to population size, Australia
nevertheless has always had a presence internationally, which is both difficult to
categorise or ignore. Australia is “known” in most countries. For a pint-sized country
we seem to have disproportionately succeeded on the international sporting field and in
the business world. The greater challenge is to determine our success at the diplomatic
table – are we taken seriously, are we respected? There seems no reason why Australia
should not be entitled to expect similar levels of success in the diplomatic world
provided we develop a mature and intelligent persona. The gaffs of the “white Australia
policy” would still haunt some neighbours, especially when ‘Hansonesque’ reminders are
mentioned. Nevertheless it is a successful global citizen who, indigenous affairs aside,
has a proven record of upholding international human rights ideals.

It is of course naïve to think that the situation in Burma, with the inherent complexities
caused by 39 years of military dictatorship, could be resolved by Australian diplomats
responding to national sentiment. And, understandably, foreign policy necessarily must
balance trade interests for Australia and Australian corporations. But the challenge is
                                            5

whether we can ensure that our foreign policy applies appropriate pressure on
recalcitrant dictators and multinational corporations who wish to do business with
Australia to have regard for democratic ideals and human rights. And further, whether
we are prepared to assist the elected government in exile in its attempts to regain
legitimate control of government. The UN did so in East Timor and Howard appears to
want to do so in Fiji. Are we prepared to agitate discussion with the G7 countries to
consider intervention, mediation and involvement in promoting democracy in Burma, as
we did in relation to East Timor? Recent experience has shown that many small steps
can grow to a stampede over the course of time.

From my brief periods in Burma it is apparent that the Burmese are as deserving of our
concern as Bosnians and the East Timorese, the children are as tragically vulnerable as
they are in Somalia and the women are as oppressed as they are in the Middle East.
Unlike some countries there is no critical and difficult divide, (Northern Ireland,
Bosnia/Serbia, Palestine/Israel) amongst the people that need to be repaired. There is
no ideological obstacle to social harmony. There is sufficient social sophistication albeit
brutalised by military rule, and a sense of history within the people to rebuild a vibrant
and productive nation. There are significant natural resources and strong spiritual
connections to peace with a sense of moral and social consciousness. Burma is deserving
of our interest and needy of our help.

The one resounding feeling in Burma is that there is a profound belief that change is
afoot. This has been the case ever since Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic forces were
elected. She is the symbol of hope upon which much rests. There is a feeling that it is
only a matter of time, be it another 6 months or 60 years, before the rule of law will be
restored, and the people are freed from the fear of tyranny that currently exists. Whether
it is sooner rather than later will to some considerable measure depend upon the voices
in the international community. One can only hope that Australia puts herself in a
position to respond and indeed takes a leading role. This will mark our maturity and
identity in the region and elsewhere. A person’s strength and character is often assessed
by how generous they might treat the weakest and most vulnerable stranger they come
across at a time of obvious need; surely so must a nation’s.




Shan Lone
April 2000

								
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