Buds of Burma reflect flourishing Asia

Articles and op-ed

Bob Carr

Published in: The Australian

4 April 2012

AT a press conference this week at her National League for Democracy headquarters in Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi told supporters that Burma's by-elections were a "triumph of the people" and the "beginning of a new era".

These by-elections appear to be Burma's first genuine elections since 1990, or even since 1962 when the world's longest-lasting military dictatorship took power.

Like the peace process in Cambodia, the democratic transition in Indonesia or the retreat of poverty in China and India, it feeds optimism about the emerging Asian century.

Our ambassador told me yesterday there was a noticeable shift in the mood in Rangoon. At least in urban areas, Burmese people are no longer worried about expressing their beliefs.

Here is the happy transformation: about six million voters were registered to participate. Based on unofficial results, a majority has voted for an opposition party. They were witness to the quiet miracle of parliamentary democracy that Australians have taken for granted since the 1850s.

When elections were last held in 2010, no international media were allowed. There were no observers - what we would call scrutineers - let alone those from outside the country. The old electoral laws would not have allowed the NLD to run.

The by-elections are the most recent development in the winding back of authoritarian rule. Some of Burma's ASEAN neighbours told me last week they considered this process irreversible.

NGOs and opposition parties within Burma remind us, however, there are still political prisoners. Estimates range from around 100 to more than 1000. Moreover, one-quarter of the seats in Burma's 664-seat national parliament are reserved for the military. And there are reports of human rights abuses in ethnic areas, including Kachin state.

Yet several of those 500 political prisoners released since October were able to contest the by-elections, providing the sort of upbeat symbolism witnessed in South Africa's transition.

Australia, of course, will continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners. But if we acknowledge the progress that has been made, we encourage President Thein Sein to continue with reform.

The conflict between the Karen National Union and the Burmese military has been fought for the past 63 years, so building peace will be a challenge. It would be helpful if the Burmese government allowed greater access to conflict zones, and we will press for this.

Once ceasefires are reached, the Australian government is ready to help with reconciliation and aid - we are already Burma's second-largest bilateral aid donor.

New labour laws enshrine the right to form trade unions and to strike. These laws were drafted with the help of the International Labor Organisation.

New media laws mean Burmese citizens can watch CNN and the BBC and visit exile media websites. And the local press has been able to publish stories about Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition. But as the opposition has been reminding us, there are still repressive laws unrepealed.

We do not have general trade or investment bans against Burma, but apply a visa ban and financial sanctions against 392 people.

In practice, this means people on our sanctions list can't travel to Australia or make financial transactions with Australians. Nor can their children come to Australia for education. These people either held positions of power under Burma's former military regime or are their immediate family members. Our sanctions have been designed to penalise the elite, without hurting the Burmese people.

Following last weekend's by-elections, I am considering easing our sanctions by reducing the number of people to whom our sanctions apply, but in a way that is proportionate with democratisation on the ground. That is, enough to encourage further reform, not enough to remove pressure for reform.

There are carrots as well. The Australian government has made clear we stand ready to support Burma through our aid program and by advocating greater assistance to Burma by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and others.

Thein Sein has shown courage in leading Burma down its reform path. The reform journey will not be without twists and turns, but a free and open Burma has big implications for the whole region - from India's Assam to China's Yunnan province. Its transformation has the potential to be a positive chapter in the Asian century.

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