Written by U Ne Oo on 1992-08-03
Australia must change its practice of ``wait and see'' on Burma's affairs.
For most Australians, Burma has been seen as an exclusive and mysterious place. Its population had been totally alienated frolly alienated from the rest of the world and, to a degree, seen as xenophobic.For almost three decades, Burma had been not seeing the modern world's developments. Such is a long sleep indeed. It was in 1988, with the popular revolts, that awoke Burma with a fresh sense of longing for social and democratic freedoms. Such a longing for social and democratic freedom is totally justified. For over 26 years, the citizens of Burma have been under the repression of the dictator, General Ne Win, who seized power in1962. He and his Burma Socialist Programme Party brought Burma into a catastrophe. With its sheer incompetence and corrupt behaviour, BSPP turned Burma,once Asia's rich country, into a basket case. In 1987, Burma had to declare herself as a Least Developed Country (LDC).Two times within a year, the demonetisations has left people in total destitution and poverty. Burmese citizens, indeed, are enraged with the regime. The regime not only brought the citizens into destitution and poverty, but also their country to become an LDC. Burmese certainly see their country being an LDC as a national insult.
It is therefore, in August 1988, that the entire population of Burma joined in calling for democracy and the resignation of the corrupt Government. Led by University students, the peaceful demonstrations with demands for democracyand their immense momentum, were unprecedented in Burma's history. Students, Buddhist monks, civil servants, the police force and some factions of military along with entire population, regardless of race or religion,, joined in those pro-democracy movements.
The people's call for democracy was denied. The military backed Socialist Party brought troops into cities. In September 1988, the military assumed state power and imposed martial law. The peaceful demonstrators, including women and childrens, were shot down. A total of 3-thousand demonstrators were killed after the military coup. To escape extreme brutality, and also in hope that they may be able to bringdown the Government by an armed struggle, Burmese students joined rebels in the border area. The Kachin and Karen ethnic freedom fighters, who had been fighting the Rangoon central Government for decades, welcomed the students.
To the Burmese disappointment, the call for social and democratic freedom had been denied. Indeed, this was not unusual nor unexpected that the military rejected reform. Far more disappointing was those countries which stand proudly as democratic and peace loving in denying to support the call of Burmese citizens for democracy. Australia, for example, just four month afte rthe brutal crackdown on demonstrators, resumed aid to Burma. Such an uncaring move proved to be a disaster. Private firms, which were eager to exploit Burma's natural resources, had moved into Burma and dealt with the military government. Australian commercial firms, including BHP, which eventually signed agreement with military government , aren't much better in their stand on human rights or democracy than their counterparts in Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. For their commercial judgements, those companies found more profitable in dealing with such a regime, who had a desperate need for foreign currency to stay in power. The regime found its true supporters indeed. After signing the treaty with foreign oil companies, BHP, Idemitsu, Yukong, Amoco, Unocal, etc..., the Burmese military's foreign reserves rose to US $ 600 million in 1990 ( In 1988, foreign reserves were less than US $ 20 million).
It is obvious to a Burmese that the regime's first priority is to stayin power. Indeed, the regime has never taken the well being of Burmese people as its responsibility. With the backing of those companies, the Burmese government built up its military machinery. Favoured with credit, China, its ideology opposed and with hostile attitude towards the popular democratic movements, was more than happy to sell arms to the Burmese military regime ( A total of US $ 1-billion sales in arms to Burma in 1990). China's Tiananmen Square massacre was a tragedy, not just for Chinese citizens but also for Burmese. Even though on hough on a smaller scale compared with the 1988 popular revolts of Burma, it gained much world attention. Undoubtedly, the Tiananmen Square massacre placed the Chinese Government in much the same situation as the Burmese military regime.The Burma military then had a powerful friend indeed.
Withtotal confidence, the Burma military then continued repression on its own people. A massive military offensive was launched on the Thai-Burma border
areas. The Karen, together with Burmese students further fled to remote areas and some into neighbouring Thailand. Many people were forced by the military to serve as porters to carry arms and ammunition over rugged mountains. Some even had to walk
over mine fields (The Burma military had a lack of mine detectors). Within the country, the crackdown on opposition forces continues. Civil
servants and students in particular are being harassed, intimidated and mistreated. Those who express opinions against the military are persecuted.
Political parties are allowed, but not permitted to gather or cam or campaign.
Within this climate, how could any opposition party ever succeed in a contest with a government- backed one? To the military regime's disappointment, rather than surprise, this speculation proved to be wrong. With incredible courage and immense sacrifice, Burmese people finally succeeded in dismantling the regime's legitimacy on state power. The opposition party, National League for Democracy (NLD), won the election with 80 percent of votes. The people's message from the 27-May-1990 election result was, and still is, unequivocal and uncompromising: We want democracy and a democratic government.
If one was fully aware of the military's intention of buying time and staying in power, he/she would not be surprised that the military refused to transfer power to the victorious NLD. The elected parliament never had a chance to convene. The elected members, instead, were detained. Some had fled to the Border areas. The rest were forced to leave their parliament unconvened.
To an extent, it is true the Gulf war in 19f war in 1990 diverted the attention from the democracy struggles in Burma. The profound truth, however, is Burma's inability to launch a nuclear war or its unfortunate lack of oil-reservoirs. No wonder the Super Power and its followers chose to ignore Burma. Then, there are the incredible Swedes who, indeed, cared enough to raise human rights issues on Burma. With a genuine concern over Burmese and Burma, the Swedes helped to push the United Nations to discuss these matters. Finally in November 1991, United Nations passed a resolution on Human Rights in Burma.
UnlikeSweden, Australia has made no commitment of substance towards democracy in Burma. Australia's commitments towards democracy in Burma and its stand on human rights issues are disappointing and confusing. After the massacre in 1988, while no one else dared to talk with the Rangoon Military, the Australian Government made an astonishing move: resuming aid to Burma. It should be stressed that this had serious consequences, which paved the way for private companies to go into Burma. The Australian government defended this by saying they don't wish a continuing project to be wasted. We have no dispute with Australia's good will and good intention to develop Burma. However, the wisdom of its timing for such a move should be questioned. Pre- and post-1990 Burma elections, various Burma support groups requested the Australian government to impose economic sanctions on Burma. The Australian government constantly refused to take steps towards trade sanctions on Burma.
The reason for such reluctance seems two fold. The first reason: bileteral trade with Burma never exceeds \$ 3-million per annum and therefore had have no significance. This figure appears to exclude the investments in private sector.(In 1989-90, this figure was 1.6 million dollars. However,it has been learnt that the foreign oil companies including BHP, whichsigned trade agreements gave 5-milliondollars as a signiture bonus to Burmese government in October 1989). Even though this trade figure appears underestimated,it will nonetheless be as significant as the Nobel honour given to our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The second reason seems more philosophical and needs clarification.It is whether the Australian Government treats human rights as a universal issue. In Australian Society, July 1990, Sen. Gareth Evans mentioned, ``Despite the large number of countries in which human rights abuses of one kind or another occur, the only exception we have been inclined as a nation to make is in respect of South Africa, because of the uniquely inhuman character of the apartheid regime''. This is the justification of why the Australian Government didn't impose a trade sanction at that time. In November 1991, however, United Nations resolution gaves a clear mandate for possible trade sanctions on
The reason for the Australion Government's reluctance to takesteps towards economic sanctions on Burma is still unclear. There may be one obvious reason: commercial interests. In the case of Dili massacre in East Timor last year, it appears that the Australian Government clearly ignored human rights issues in favour of commercial interests. In the case of Burma, one wonders what commercial interest could have been the cause for reluctance to place economic sanctions on Burma.
There is another reason which isnot so obvious.The government is acting with the unprincipled approach towards human rights issues. From the above cited Sen. Gareth Evan's reply, there is an indication that the Australian government has accepted multiple standards on human rights. The above cited note implies that, excepting South Africa, the human rights violations elsewhere will be accepted as one of its own country's social and cultural factors. If this is true, it will be a total catastrophe for those who are striving for democracy all over the world. There is another implication from the reply: while South Africa's regime (prior to July 1990) was found as unacceptable and inhuman, (it is not clear whether,) the Burmese military regime is found to be acceptable and humane (so that Australian government does not impose sanctions).
We have been much encouraged, indeed, with Australia's ``One Nation'' statement which sees Australia taking part more actively in Asia-Pacific affairs. It is unclear whether a change of symbol would constitute a change in Australia's image. However, it is certain that Australia's principles, as well as its practice in Asia will have to change. In the past, we have seen Australia as a follower rather than a decision maker in Burma's affairs in particular. Australia must change it's practice of ``wait and see'' on Burma's affairs.