Australia must pile pressure on Burma's govt

Over the weekend Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd concluded his three day visit to Burma and met with Aung San Suu Kyi. Whilst much of Australia’s media attention was fixed on the meeting between Rudd and Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday, what was largely ignored were his meetings with Burma’s President Thein Sein and Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

During his visit Rudd called on the regime to release all political prisoners, of which there are over 2000, and to guarantee Aung San Suu Kyi’s safety. This tactic has been used in the past by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and representatives of the international community during their visits to Burma.  It is a tactic that puts the need for action or change back on the regime.

Unfortunately, these calls are rarely acted on by the regime. It would be very nice if they were, but the reality is that they are likely to have fallen on deaf and uncaring ears. And whilst there is value in making these appeals directly to Burma’s leaders, it does not absolve Australia of a need to do more for the people of Burma. What Burma needs and wants is genuine democratic change and for human rights to be respected.

With regards to helping Burma achieve this, on the international front Australia is doing better than most countries. Australia is a member of the UN Secretary General’s Friends of Burma group, and we support a global arms embargo. Last year Australia was the first country to publicly support a UN Commission of Inquiry.

But good foreign policy cannot rest on statements and denunciations.  It needs to be backed by action. Australia could be doing more internationally to further these initiatives, such as working to build more support for a UN probe into human rights abuses.

What is really lacking in Australia’s foreign policy on Burma however is a good answer to the following question – what can Australia do to support democracy, human rights and the people of Burma?

To date Australia has made strong statements in support of democracy, genuine change, called for the release of political prisoners and condemned human rights abuses.  We maintain financial sanctions and a visa ban on a number of named members of the regime, their families and cronies, and have a long standing arms embargo. Sadly, this is not enough.

In October 2010 Kevin Rudd said: “We cannot simply lay down the baton as if all that can be done has been done”.  Australia should be “applying all practical measures to bring about concerted pressure on the regime”.

We agree and there is much more that Australia can and should be doing to pressure the regime.

Expanding Australia’s current financial sanctions to include the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise is a first step that would apply much needed pressure on the regime to change. The links between Burma’s oil and gas industry and human rights abuses is well documented, but what is most concerning is that billions of dollars of profits from this industry are directly contributing to the long term financial viability and stability of the regime and helping fund systematic human rights abuses.  Including the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise on Australia’s financial sanction list is a strategic move that puts pressure on the military regime and those made wealthy because of their links to the regime, but have no direct impacts on ordinary people in Burma.

We also cannot forget the humanitarian needs of the people of Burma. Australia is the second largest aid provider to Burma, giving nearly $AUS50 million ($US53 million) each year. Australia’s aid to Burma does good work, especially when considering the heavy restrictions imposed upon aid organisations and workers by the Burmese authorities.

These restrictions mean that millions of people, including communities that are amongst the poorest and most in need, such as internally displaced people in eastern Burma, are currently being left out. These people can only be reached via cross border aid, where aid is brought to these communities from neighbouring countries, which Australia does not currently fund.  A policy shift that would see Australian aid money being used to support cross border aid is much needed and long overdue.  Only after this policy shift has been made can we be assured that Australia’s aid is reaching Burma’s most vulnerable populations.

It is Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd who can enact both of these important policy shifts which would help the people of Burma in two different but meaningful ways.  The question is, as the person who himself has said all that can be done to support Burma is not being done, will he choose this time to back his statement with real action that will make a difference or will Australia’s foreign policy remain for the most part denunciations and statements?  Only time will tell.

Zetty Brake is campaign coordinator for Burma Campaign Australia

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