Attention on Myanmar


Last month’s United Nations summit of world leaders did not achieve much, but it did agree on collective international responsibility, including Security Council action where necessary, to protect peoples from a range of crimes against humanity.

The resolution marked the culmination of six years of appeals by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and a report, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, by an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty convened by Canada and co-chaired by former Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans and former senior Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, aiming to establish an international regime to deal with massive violations of human rights.

Boy soldier, part of the Karen National Union.

Will Burma (Myanmar), singled out by Kofi Annan, provide the opportunity for the UN to show that it can act effectively to ensure human security and promote peaceful change? Will there be a role for the Australian Government, whose Prime Minister signed up to the summit accord, in regard to action against the prime transgressor against its own citizens in the Asian region?

These questions have been raised by subsequent developments. The first was a report, ‘Threat to the Peace’, by an international law firm, commissioned by former Czech president Vaclav Havel and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu – both staunch supporters of Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – calling for the Security Council to put Burma on its agenda and strengthen the Secretary-General’s mandate.

The US has followed up, stating that it is consulting about bringing Burma before the Security Council. For nearly a decade, since the Clinton Presidency, the US has affirmed that Burma constitutes ‘an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the US’. Australia, although not a member of the Security Council, is presumably amongst governments being consulted.

The ‘Threat to the Peace’ report compares seven previous cases of Security Council intervention, where it was deemed a domestic crisis posed a threat to peace. Three were in Africa, two in the Middle East, one in the Americas and one in Asia – Cambodia. (East Timor is not mentioned, but offers lessons, positive and negative).

The report finds that Burma is unique in embracing all the different justifications for such action: overthrow of a democratically elected government; internal conflict; widespread humanitarian and human rights abuses; refugee outflows and other cross-border problems. It notes Burma’s responsibility for the spread of HIV/AIDS (including a strain originating there) to neighbouring countries, and that a Security Council resolution in 2000 defined the spread of HIV/AIDS as a threat to international security.

‘Threat to the Peace’ calls for mandatory UN action, to replace the 14 years of toothless General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights resolutions. Both its content and recommendations for action are modest.

The content is in close accord with the vast array of facts compiled in previous UN reports. It does not allege genocide, for which some lawyers have recently made a case. The virtue of the report is that by bringing together in one document, and in a comparative perspective, the features justifying earlier interventions it makes a strong case for the Security Council to act.

The report does not seek suspension of Burma’s membership of the UN, let alone sanctions or military intervention, as the Security Council has authorised in the past. Nor does the US appear to have these sterner measures in mind. Rather, attention is centred on a stronger mandate for, and more resolute action by, the Secretary-General, reporting regularly to the Security Council. His aim would be to promote national reconciliation and open up the way for a democratically elected government and expanded aid.

Cover photo UN report

Cover photo UN report

Action over Burma would signal that times are changing. Traditional appeasers of the military regime will react with horror, but have to take account of this international sea change, and of the evidence that after 43 years the military regime is faltering. Its over-riding preoccupation – to hang on to power – is embarrassing to its backers and potentially dangerous.

Action is timely. It is preferable that it be through the Security Council rather than half-baked intervention outside it, as in Iraq and Kosovo. An incremental strengthening of the Secretary-General’s current authority should not attract a veto in the Security Council.

However, delicate diplomacy in the UN and regionally will be required and the UN will need a roadmap against which the Secretary-General can report on progress. These are functions which Australia carried out over a four-year period to broker a settlement, against odds, in Khmer Rouge devastated Cambodia.

Gareth Evans has written of Australia’s contribution in Cambodia, that it was ‘a major development in Australian diplomacy, showing how effective middle power diplomacy could be.’ Australia, he says, was ‘mapmaker and persuader more an intellectual than a political or military role.’ Certainly it required enormous intellectual commitment, from Evans himself and the departmental Secretary, Michael Costello, and many members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (though independent Australian diplomatic action goes back to Bill Hayden’s regional visits, at the outset of which one Southeast Asian Prime Minister warned him not to get in ASEAN’s way; to Malcolm Fraser’s invitation to Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk to visit Australia, over-ruling his top officials; and to Andrew Peacock’s insistence on de-recognising the odious Khmer Rouge, whose seat in the UN was protected by ASEAN).

As ‘persuader’ Evans shares the credit with others, notably then Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas. Serendipitously, Alatas has just entered the picture again, as a special envoy who recently visited Burma, reportedly to prepare the way for the Secretary-General to visit Rangoon. Alatas is a man with whom Australians can work, despite differences in 1999 over East Timor.

Members of ASEAN’s Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus have supported the call for Security Council action. No doubt the recently reactivated Australian Parliament’s Friends of Burma Group will be seeking to exchange ideas with them.

There should be two-track diplomacy in which officially and unofficially Australians can put forward the relevance of its marathon Cambodian peace initiative.

Australia should grasp the opportunity to end human insecurity and contribute to democratic change in Burma.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.