Burma deserves more attention
Edited version of this piece will appear in Justice Trends,
no.115, December 2004 ("Time to put the spotlight
on Burma regime")
Rarely a week goes by without international attention being focused
on Burma (also known as Myanmar) over its lack of human rights and
democracy. In the last few months Burma was hit by renewed sanctions
from the EU and US, its officials were barred from the 28th Olympic
Games in Athens, and its accession to the bi-yearly Europe-Asia
summit in Vietnam caused tensions between the EU and the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In recent weeks, an internal power feud which led to the dismissal
and arrest of the once powerful Prime Minister and head of intelligence,
General Khin Nyunt, has further damaged Burma’s already parlous
standing among the international community.
The unprecedented political reshuffle is the culmination of a campaign
to unseat Gen. Nyunt, who is considered a marginally moderate pragmatist,
and to purge his support-base. Reports from Burma suggest that up
to 800 people have been detained as part of the campaign.
Many commentators have argued that the more hawkish faction’s
consolidation of power has dealt a blow to any marginal hope of
an end to the political stalemate between the military rulers and
the political and ethnic opposition in Burma. However, it could
equally be a sign of early cracks in the military rule. Either way,
there are certain to be serious implications for the region.
While the debate over the appropriate strategy to deal with the
military leaders and promote change in Burma should and will continue,
what is remarkable is the absence of any interest in Burma and debate
about this conflict-torn country by Australia, Burma’s nearest
Western neighbour. The lack of interest is surprising considering
not just Burma’s deplorable political and human rights record
but also its strategic significance for Australia.
Burma buffers the world’s two largest populations, China
and India, both of which are vying for influence in this resource-rich
country. Burma boasts an army second only to Vietnam in Southeast
Asia. Despite Burma’s recalcitrance within the international
community, it is still due to take up the ASEAN chair in 2006.
Whether appeasing or punishing the military regime, the international
community generally recognises Burma’s growing strategic significance
and influence in the region. Not so for Australia. For all its talk
about having an interest in Asia, the Australian government seems
to have assigned Burma to the too-hard basket.
Even at the Australian research level, there is a disturbing shortage
of expertise on Burma. There are no research centres dedicated to
Burmese studies and very few Australian experts in the area. Left
to the dictates of the market, the only university Burmese language
course in Australia was cancelled this year, despite the outstanding
evaluations by students and the course’s clear importance
to Australia. This situation is unlikely to change without policy
Australia needs be more strategic in its policy approach on Burma.
Australia would do well to enhance its expertise in Burma not only
so it may contribute to resolving the political impasse in this
country but also to prepare itself for the day democracy comes to
Burma. There are lessons to be learnt from Indonesia. The Burmese
military leadership is not monolithic nor will the current political
situation last forever. Things can happen very quickly when the
first cracks appear in the military machine.
Kings Cross, 25/10/04
Minh Nguyen is a researcher at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice
Centre. He is the author of View
on Maynmar/Burma, and View
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