Roadmap to Democracy


The military junta in Burma, otherwise known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), continues to imprison, torture and kill political prisoners. Daw Aung Sung Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of the democratically elected party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). has been kept under house arrest for ten of the last 16 years.

From having been a country of great wealth and resources, Burma is now bottom of the World Bank’s list in terms of human rights and 75 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

A report by South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Czech President Vaclav Havel describes the military’s human rights violations: the destruction of 2500 villages resulting in 526,000 internally displaced people; rape of ethnic minority women; the spread of HIV by soldiers; and 70,000 children forced to become soldiers, more than in any other country. Universities are closed, apart form those that train the military. The SPDC perpetrates fear and surveillance reminiscent of Nazi Germany, and over 700,000 refugees have fled across its borders.

However, several events over the past six months indicate that international pressure is having some impact on the junta.

Late last year, Burma surrendered its turn to chair the 2006 meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). This followed increased pressure, mainly from Malaysia and the USA, for the junta to address its human rights abuses and move towards democracy. The SPDC described its relinquishing of the ASEAN chair as necessary in order to focus on the ‘roadmap to democracy.’

Suu kyi and protestors pic is from

This roadmap, however, remains blurred. The National Convention on 5 December 2005, supposedly set up to develop a new constitution, was a farce. Major political parties, including the NLD, the United Nationalities Alliance, and ethnic parties such as the New Mon State Party declined to attend because conditions for their attendance were not met – conditions including freedom of expression and association, and the participation of party leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo, and others.

Instead, Burma’s military rulers extended Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest for another six months – an action that prompted more international pressure.

The Tutu-Havel report sparked calls from the US, Britain and others for Burma’s inclusion on the official agenda of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Currently, there is disagreement within the UNSC about whether events in Burma are issues of ‘security,’ so it has not been decided to include Burma on the Council’s formal agenda.

Such a move would allow the Council to formally pressure the military junta on their human rights abuses and lack of progress towards democracy. Havel and Tutu recommended that the UNSC adopt a resolution requiring the SPDC to implement a plan for national reconciliation, restoration of democratic elections, immediate unconditional release of political prisoners, and safe access to all parts of the country for NGOs and UN agencies.

Another significant international action pressuring the SPDC occurred at the inaugural East Asian Summit (EAS) in early December. The Summit brought together for the first time the ten ASEAN States, plus Australia, Japan, China, South Korea, India and New Zealand, to discuss trade and security with the aim of ‘promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia.’

ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation – its agreement that ASEAN States not interfere in each other’s internal affairs – had been the stumbling block to Australia’s closer co-operation with the group, but Howard overcame that in order to participate in the EAS. Interestingly, ASEAN, chaired by Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Alba, seems to have broken its own non-interference agreement by calling on Burma’s SPDC to expedite its proposed democratic reforms, and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees.

The SPDC responded by inviting the ASEAN chair to visit Burma to review ‘recent developments in the democratic processes.’ Given the SPDC’s refusal to allow UN-mandated researchers from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) into the State in 2004, the invitation to the Malaysian Foreign Minister indicates a new tack.

There are some indications that the military may not feel as confident as it once did. For example, there is no clear explanation for the recent move of the capital from Rangoon to Pyinmana, in the central hills, where there are no sealed roads or electricity and little adequate housing. Government officials have said the relocation reflects the need for a ‘command and control centre’ in central Burma. This could be a strategic re-positioning to a site which requires fewer troops for defence, while offering a quicker emergency exit to China; or it could be a way for the SPDC to distance itself from a potential uprising of activists in Rangoon.

The head of the junta, General Than Shwe, has called for a strengthening of the armed forces with modern weaponry. Why is this necessary? Speculation includes the military’s fear of US invasion, based on recent criticism of the junta by President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

External criticism has also come from the Philippines – which has advocated ousting Burma from ASEAN if there are no moves to democracy within a year – and India, which has just established the first-ever Indian Parliamentarians’ Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Thailand continues to house thousands of Burmese refugees in camps along its border and the Thai Ministry of Education recently committed funds to provide educational services for 140,000 of them.

The US has imposed economic sanctions for some time and recently, British company Gill Clothing, Austrian Airlines, travel company Eastravel and US travelguide publisher Frommers withdrew their trade from Burma in protest of the military’s oppression.

With such international pressure on Burma, what role might Australia play in the future?

Australia’s policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with Burma is now at odds with most other States. The project of providing human rights training for military and government personnel was ‘postponed’ following the 2003 re-imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, and our engagement since has been either in the form of limited aid or trade.

Australia contributes about $12 million annually in humanitarian aid to Burma. The focus is on addressing the country’s dire humanitarian situation and significant cross-border issues, such as HIV, people trafficking, and illicit drugs. Australia annually imports $18 million worth of products from Burma. This relatively small amount comes with no assurance that workers are not mistreated. On the contrary, the ILO and Tutu-Havel reports indicate widespread instances of forced labour and shocking working conditions.

Australia has been far less vocal in criticising Burma than other countries, so Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s recent statement at the EAS, likening the speed of Burma’s constitutional reform to glue flowing uphill, was interesting. Might our history of non-criticism and ‘constructive engagement’ offer us a role in Burma’s future similar to those we played in the transition to democracy of Cambodia and East Timor?

Australia must decide whether to challenge or engage with Burma. What is needed now is some clear policy from Howard and Downer.

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.