Wheels In Motion


The Saffron Revolution has set change in motion inside Burma, even though it may be imperceptible from outside. Under the surface, people feel deeply about the military action against the Buddhist monks, who had been demonstrating peacefully against hardship, under ground rules informally agreed to by the local military commanders. There is now a split between many of the regional military commanders and the hardline top leadership.

The international reaction to the way the Saffron Revolution was put down was also quite profound. It was rejected by ASEAN countries, which have been trying unavailingly to persuade the inaptly named State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) that it should act more humanely in controlling demonstrations of dissent.

While ASEAN’s will to do something about Burma has cooled down since it condemned the SPDC’s actions in the UN Security Council, the organisation recognises that it has a problem which tarnishes its own reputation, now that it has adopted a Charter whose pillars are democracy, human rights and good governance.

Another problem is the international action generated by smart sanctions, which Australia joined after Howard appeared to overrule Downer on the matter, perhaps after a call from the White House. Singapore is in the front line here, being very sensitive about its international business reputation.

The third important factor is the influence of public opinion in some ASEAN countries, which has been considerably boosted by the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar caucus. Public opinion on Burma supports greater activity by Indonesia as a developing democracy, and probably Thailand, the next chair of ASEAN.

Up to now the main action has been in the United Nations. That much maligned organisation comes out of it well, although Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has to feel his way in exercising the ambivalent authority given by a Security Council in which China and Russia are adamantly opposed to change through international pressure or indeed force. The UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, a Nigerian, has visited Burma twice and human rights rapporteur for Burma, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, has been allowed to make his first visit in four years. Gambari has achieved quite a lot against the odds.

On his second visit he was snubbed by the top leadership. But he turned this to advantage in the best judo tradition by seeing democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi just before his departure and securing a statement that he was able to promote to the world. It is a statement that government and NGOs can get behind. She essentially commits herself to negotiations without preconditions, except that talks should be soon and tripartite that is, in the presence of the UN as facilitator.

The SPDC knows that there are carrots as well as sticks, but it is clearly unsure that they will not be equally unpalatable, and even destabilising. It therefore rejected Gambari’s offer of a poverty alleviation commission. Another sign of the regime’s extreme sensitivity was that it gave UN resident coordinator Charles Petrie his marching orders for a mild reference to economic conditions. Petrie will be at the Australian National University update conference on Burma on 10 -11 December, along with Australian Richard Horsey, who recently left Rangoon after an outstanding term as International Labour Organisation resident representative.

Economic hardship sparked the Saffron Revolution, just as it did the 1988 demonstrations which led to thousands of deaths, and the preceding U Thant riots in 1974, which had been preceded by worker demonstrations when dictator Ne Win left the country. In the two previous cases, Western governments and business were forgiving, but unavailingly, for the Burmese military habitually reject expert economic advice. The experience provides a warning against simple economic appeasement, which has been advocated in Australia, although it cuts no ice with the private sector.

Persuading the SPDC to pursue more rational economic policies and to radically change priorities is obviously going to be a difficult and delicate exercise. Burma’s best friends such as Indonesia, which can speak from a relevant 40 year history; and China, which has changed economic causes over the last 30 years and constricted the military role in business and so can provide even more powerful lessons have opportunities for an active diplomacy of quiet persuasion. China has already successfully played a similar role with its other introverted and unpredictable neighbour, North Korea.

The roles that China and Indonesia can play should engage Australia. There may be scope for partnership, just as the Australia-Indonesia partnership brought about a settlement on Cambodia. The Indonesian Foreign Minister at the time, Ali Alatas, is still an active player in regard to Burma. Regional activity provides the best ever Australian diplomacy.

Although Australia is not a member of the Security Council, it has options on the international stage, particularly in a ‘good cop, bad cop’ scenario. In opposition, Labor supported taking the SPDC leaders to the International Criminal Court, or the international Court of Justice. If ASEAN should decide to suspend Burma’s membership, as is mooted from time to time, this could lead to action on its UN membership.

Greater international publicity, in the region and in the UN, for the military regime’s appalling record of gross economic mismanagement, unprecedented corruption and distortion of priorities, could prove a powerful pressure within as well as outside Burma. Many Burmese felt profoundly humiliated when, in the year before the 1988 uprising, the UN declared resource-rich Burma one the world’s 10 least developed countries.

Downer’s foreign policy on Burma was a characteristic justification of inaction. Nothing could be done, he would say, because the military regime was impervious to advice and Burma was a colony of China, which would be news to leaders in both countries. We can look forward to Burma providing an opportunity for a more active Australian middle power diplomacy and to the reactivation of the Parliamentary Friends of Burma group.

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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.