Written by U Ne Oo on 2005-09-30

In last couple of months, we've seen the ASEAN ( the Association of South East Asean Nations) collectively has taken unprecedented action against the military junta in Burma. The Association in particular had pressured Burma to give up its rotating Chairmanship that will come to affect in 2006. The Burmese military junta has complied with the ASEAN's request, announcing Burma will forgo its chairmanship position. The Republic of Philippines is set to take up the 2006 ASEAN Chairmanship position.

An end to Constructive Engagement ?

The ASEAN's present action on Burma is unprecedented in several ways. This is because, firstly, the Association traditionally adopts 'non-interference' on its members' domestic affairs. Of course, this stance literally means 'business-as-usual' for members no matter what the political or human rights oppressions taken place within its membership.

Secondly, the Association has adopted so-called 'constructive engagement policy' with Burma. This policy suggests that, in dealing with political and human rights violations in Burma, the Association will use a quiet diplomacy in a non-confrontational ways. Again, the end result of this policy is the Association doing nothing practically about violations in Burma. This 'constructive engagememt policy' has allowed the inaction of the Association regarding with Burma to hide behind the masks of a quiet diplomacy.

The ASEAN appears to reverse its constructive engagement policy after the Burmese military junta cracked down on NLD activists in May 2003. Several NLD party members who had been campaigning peacefully were killed in the attack. The NLD's charismatic leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has also been detained since that incident in May 2003.

The ASEAN also seems to be concerned with impending political instability in Burma. Burma appears to be heading towards an implosion within and it is bound to become a failed state if the problems are not solved in time. In November 2004, a military coup took place in Burma and the Prime Minister Khin Nyunt (un-elected military leader since 1988) was put under house arrest. During last month (August-2005), there were rumours about another military coup -- though it is reported to be an un-eventuated coup. Current ASEAN's policy shift is no doubt the result of the Association's concern for possible political breakdown in Burma and therefore trying to speed-up political reform in that country.

Australia's Burma Policy and the ASEAN

Since the democratic uprising in Burma in 1988, Australia has adopted a policy on Burma similar to that of ASEAN. Australia adopted a policy similar to the ASEAN policy of 'constructive engagements with Burma' and had exercised limited contact with the military junta in Burma. AusAID, for example, run a small in-country HIV/AIDS education program. The Government does not have trade and investment ban on Burma.

The Human Rights Training Program, which launched in 1999 by the Australian government, had now been suspended.

Historically, the Australian policy of limited engagement with Burma was formulated by the then Australian Labor Government. The policy of limited engagement with Burma was continued under the Coalition.

The need for Policy Review

After disastrous outcomes of the Human Rights Training Program, the Australian government has made no new initiatives nor conducted a review of policy on Burma. Burma's neighbouring countries are now revising their own policies and therefore it is prudent for Australia to revise its own policy.

Under the Labor Government, Australia adopted a Burma policy that is similar to ASEAN. This trend is quite understandable because of a somewhat closer relationship as well as co-operative atmosphere that had existed within Australia and ASEAN Countries. Therefore, Australia could hope to work collaboratively withe ASEAN in order to affect change in Burma.

In recent years, however, Australia's role within Asia itself had been shifting. With regards to Burma, current Australian government neither has the political capacity nor there exists an atmosphere conducive to work collaboratively with ASEAN regarding with the situation in Burma.

In sum, Australia should better be looking at adopting Burma policy similar to that of United States and EU countries.

Dr U Ne Oo is a Burmese exile living in Adelaide and the Secretary of Burma Action Group (South Australia Inc.)

Time for Australia to review Burma policy