Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr is now on a three-day visit to Burma to "meet senior government figures, parliamentary leaders and political reformists including Aung San Suu Kyi" and "to assess what more Australia can do to support reform efforts" in the troubled Southeast Asia country.
Carr’s trip is the third by an Australian foreign minister since Alexander Downer visited Burma in 2002. Carr’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, most recently visited Burma in June 2011. The people of Burma expected that their visits could help improve the human rights situation in Burma, but it was not the case. Can they expect results from Carr’s visit?
Before his meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein on Thursday, Carr first paid a visit to Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon. He also extended to her an invitation from Prime Minister Gillard to come to Australia as their guest, and she agreed to do so next year.
During the meeting, Aung San Suu Kyi said sanctions should be suspended, not abolished, to encourage further political reforms and respect for human rights.
"We’ve discussed the matter of sanctions and I am in favour of suspended sanctions because that makes it quite clear that good behaviour will be rewarded and if the good behaviour is not maintained the rewards can also be taken away," she told reports after the meeting.
Suu Kyi also urged Australia to see that its businesses invest and trade in ways that benefit local people. She has already urged investors at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Bangkok to think carefully about how to invest in Burma and make sure it was done in such a way as to avoid creating more possibilities for corruption, and worsening the inequalities which already blight the country.
Burma activists and the Burmese community in Australia also share the view of Suu Kyi. They have also called on Senator Carr to effectively utilise Australia’s sanctions, pressure and aid to make improvements to the country’s dire human rights situation. Bringing about irreversible genuine change is the aim, rather than appeasing the quasi-civilian government, which demands sanctions be lifted.
Despite this, following a meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein on Thursday, Carr announced that travel and financial sanctions on the remaining 126 military leaders and associates will be lifted, but the arms embargo will remain in place. He also cautioned that the sanctions could be reimposed at any time.
Carr’s decision disappointed the Australian Burmese community and Burma activists who are firm that sanctions must be lifted step by step only when the Burmese regime heeds international calls to release all political prisoners, make tangible and proven efforts to end human rights abuses, and genuinely begin an inclusive dialogue for national reconciliation.
Carr has made similar decision in March to remove 262 individuals from the financial and visa ban lists (reducing the number from 392 to 130) amid ongoing military hostilities and serious human rights abuses in ethnic areas, including the war in Kachin state, which displaced over 75,000 civilians. Such a situation still continues.
At the same time, Australia also abandoned its previous official policy of neither encouraging nor discouraging trade and investment with Burma. This position was initially taken due to Burma’s horrific human rights record and disregard for the rule of law. We are now set to encourage closer economic ties.
Before leaving for Burma on 5 June, Senator Carr said he would press Burma’s quasi-civilian administration for a transition to a democratic government. He also told Radio Australia it will be important to make the point that genuine democratic government does not have parliamentary seats reserved for the military.
Carr should be well aware that over 500 political prisoners remain behind bars, military hostilities against ethnic civilians and human rights abuses continue unabated; and that the vast majority of investment is in industries that exploit Burma’s unique natural resources, cause systematic human rights violations and loss of livelihood, and force people from their homes.
He should always be clear that the entire people of Burma desperately want human rights abuses stopped and the military attacks against ethnic armed groups and innocent civilians ceased. They want foreign investment to benefit them and ensure sustainable development. They want Australia to throw its full weight behind their struggle for democracy.
Australia should not be recklessly optimistic about changes in Burma. It is not the time for easing more sanctions prematurely, which will benefit the Burmese government and its associates and supporters only.
It is not the time for rushing to do business with Burma. In fact, it is the time to prove that Australia stands with the people of Burma who want Australia to help them, not the Burmese regime.
Now is the time to be clearer than ever that real and tangible actions must be taken to directly improve the situation for human rights and democracy. Only then can the relationship with Australia move to its next level.
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