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Received: by pilot.physics.adelaide.edu.au (5.61+IDA+MU/UA-5.23)id AA18702; Thu, 29 Dec 1994 16:17:42 +1030





 ON DIT: AUGUST 3, 1992 .


( Australia must change its practice of ``wait and see'' on Burma's affairs.)

U Ne Oo is a Burmese student studying at the Adelaide University.

For most Australians, Burma has been seen as an exclusive and mysterious
place. Its population had been totally alienated from the rest of the world 
and, to a degree, seen as xenophobic.  For almost three decades, Burma had 
been not seeing the modern  world's developments. Such is a long sleep 
indeed. It was in 1988, with the  popular revolts, that awoke Burma  with
a fresh sense of longing for social and democratic freedoms.

Such a longing for social and democratic freedom is totally justified. For 
over 26 years, the citizens of Burma have been under the repression of the 
dictator, General Ne Win, who seized power in 1962. He and his Burma 
Socialist Programme Party, brought Burma into a catastrophe. With its sheer 
incompetence and corrupt behaviour, BSPP turned Burma,once Asia's rich 
country, into a basket case. In 1987, Burma had to declare herself as a 
Least Developed Country (LDC). Two times within a year, the demonetisations 
has left people in  total destitution and poverty. Burmese citizens, 
indeed, are enraged with the regime. The regime not only brought the 
citizens into destitution and poverty, but also their country to become 
an LDC. Burmese certainly see their country being an LDC as a national insult.

It is therefore, in August 1988, that the entire population of Burma joined in
calling for democracy and  the resignation of the corrupt Government.
Led by University students, the peaceful demonstrations with demands for 
democracy   and their immense momentum, were unprecedented in Burma's history. 
Students, Buddhist monks, civil servants, the police force and some factions of
military along with entire population, regardless of race or religion,
joined in those pro-democracy movements. 

The people's call for democracy was denied. The military backed Socialist Party
brought troops into cities. In September 1988, the  military assumed state 
power and imposed  martial law. The peaceful demonstrators, including women
and childrens, were shot down. A total of 3-thousand demonstrators were
killed after the military coup. 

To escape extreme brutality, and also in  hope that they may be able to bring 
down the Government by an armed struggle, Burmese students joined rebels
in the border area. The Kachin and Karen ethnic freedom fighters, who had 
been fighting the Rangoon central Government for decades, welcomed the 

To the Burmese disappointment, the call for social and democratic
freedom had been denied. Indeed, this was not unusual nor  unexpected that
the military rejected reform. Far more disappointing was those countries 
which stand proudly as democratic and peace loving in denying to support 
the call of Burmese citizens for democracy. Australia, for example, just 
four month after  the brutal crackdown on demonstrators, resumed aid to 
Burma. Such an uncaring move proved to be a disaster. Private firms,
which were eager to exploit Burma's natural resources, had moved into 
Burma and dealt with the military government. Australian commercial firms, 
including BHP, which eventually signed agreement with military government
, aren't much better in their stand on human rights or democracy
than their counterparts in Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

For their commercial judgements, those companies found more profitable
in dealing with such a regime, who had a desperate need for foreign 
currency to stay in power. The regime found its true supporters indeed. 
After signing the treaty with foreign oil companies,BHP, Idemitsu, 
Yukong, Amoco, Unocal, etc..., the Burmese military's foreign reserves 
rose to US\$ 600 million in 1990 ( In 1988, foreign reserves were less 
than US \$ 20 million).

It is obvious to a Burmese that the regime's first priority is to stay 
in power. Indeed, the regime has never taken the well being of Burmese
people as its responsibility. With the backing of those companies, the
Burmese government built up its military machinery. Favoured with credit, 
China, its ideology opposed and with hostile attitude towards the popular 
democratic movements, was more than happy to sell arms to the Burmese 
military regime ( A total of US \$ 1-billion sales in arms to Burma in

China's Tiananmen Square massacre was a tragedy, not just for Chinese citizens
but also for Burmese. Even though on a smaller scale compared with the 1988
popular revolts of Burma, it gained much world attention. Undoubtedly,
the Tiananmen Square massacre placed the Chinese Government in much the 
same situation as the Burmese military regime. The Burma military then 
had a powerful friend indeed.

With  total confidence, the Burma military then continued repression on its 
own people. A massive military offensive was launched on the Thai-Burma border
areas. The Karen, together with Burmese students  further fled to remote 
areas and some into neighbouring Thailand. Many people were forced by the 
military to serve as porters to carry arms and ammunition over rugged 
mountains. Some even had to walk over mine fields (The Burma military had 
a lack of mine detectors).

Within the country, the crackdown on opposition forces continues. Civil
servants and students in particular are being harassed, intimidated and 
mistreated. Those who express opinions against the military are persecuted.
Political parties are allowed, but not permitted to gather or campaign.
Within this climate, how could any  opposition party  ever  succeed in a 
contest with a government- backed one?

To the military regime's disappointment, rather than surprise, this 
speculation proved to be wrong. With  incredible courage and
immense sacrifice, Burmese people finally succeeded in dismantling
the regime's legitimacy on state power. The opposition party,
National League for Democracy (NLD), won the election with 80 percent
of votes. The people's message from the 27-May-1990 election result was,
and still is, unequivocal and uncompromising: We want democracy and a 
democratic government.

If one was fully aware of the military's intention of buying time and 
staying in power, he/she would not be surprised that the military refused
to transfer power to the victorious NLD.  The elected parliament  never
had a chance to convene. The elected members, instead, were detained.
Some had fled to the Border areas. The rest were forced to leave
their parliament unconvened.

To an extent, it is true the Gulf war in 1990 diverted the attention
from the democracy struggles in Burma. The profound truth, however, is Burma's 
inability to launch a nuclear war or its unfortunate lack of oil-reservoirs.
No wonder the Super Power and its followers chose to ignore Burma.

Then, there are the incredible Swedes who, indeed, cared enough to raise 
human rights issues on Burma. With a genuine concern over Burmese and Burma, 
the Swedes helped to push the United Nations to discuss these matters. 
Finally in November 1991, United Nations passed a resolution on Human Rights 
in Burma.

Unlike  Sweden, Australia has made no commitment of substance towards  
democracy in Burma. Australia's commitments towards democracy in Burma and 
its stand on human rights issues  are  disappointing and confusing. After 
the massacre in 1988, while no one else dared to talk with the Rangoon 
Military, the Australian Government made an astonishing move: resuming 
aid to Burma. It should be stressed that this had serious consequences,
which paved the way for private companies to go into Burma. The Australian 
government defended this by saying they don't wish a continuing project to be
wasted. We have no dispute with Australia's good will and good
intention to develop Burma. However, the wisdom of its timing for such 
a move should be questioned. Pre- and post-  1990 Burma elections,
various Burma support groups requested the Australian government to
impose  economic sanctions on Burma. The Australian government constantly
refused to take steps towards trade sanctions on Burma.

The reason for such reluctance  seems two fold. The first reason: bileteral 
trade with Burma  never exceeds \$ 3-million per annum  and therefore had 
have no significance. This figure appears to exclude the investments in 
private sector. (In 1989-90, this figure was 1.6 million dollars. However,
it has been learnt that the foreign oil companies including BHP, which 
signed trade agreements  gave 5-million dollars as a signiture
bonus to Burmese government in October 1989). Even though this trade 
figure appears underestimated, it will nonetheless be as significant as 
the Nobel honour given to our  leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The second reason seems more philosophical and needs clarification. 
It is whether the Australian Government treats human rights as 
a universal issue. In Australian Society, July 1990, Sen. Gareth Evans 
mentioned, ``Despite the large number of countries in which  human rights 
abuses of one kind or another  occur, the only exception we have been 
inclined as a nation to make is in respect of South Africa, because of 
the uniquely inhuman character of the apartheid regime''. This is the 
justification of why the Australian Government didn't impose a trade 
sanction at that time. In November 1991, however, United Nations 
resolution gaves a clear mandate for possible trade sanctions on
Burma. The reason for the Australion Government's reluctance to take 
steps towards economic sanctions on Burma is still unclear.

There may be one obvious reason: commercial interests. In the case of 
Dili massacre in East Timor last year, it appears that the Australian 
Government clearly ignored human rights issues in favour of commercial 
interests. In the case of Burma, one wonders what commercial
interest could have been the cause for reluctance to place economic
sanctions on Burma.

There is another reason which is  not so obvious. The government is acting 
with the unprincipled approach towards human rights issues. From the above 
cited Sen. Gareth Evan's reply, there is an indication that the Australian 
government has accepted multiple standards on human rights.  The above cited 
note implies that, excepting South Africa, the human rights violations 
elsewhere will be accepted as one of its own country's social and cultural 
factors. If this is true, it will be a total catastrophe for those who are 
striving for democracy all over the world. There is another implication 
from the reply: while  South Africa's regime (prior to July 1990) was found
as unacceptable and inhuman, (it is not clear whether,) the Burmese military
regime is found to be  acceptable and humane (so that Australian government 
does not impose sanctions).

We have been much encouraged, indeed, with Australia's ``One Nation''
statement which sees Australia taking part more actively in Asia-Pacific 
affairs. It is unclear whether a change of symbol would constitute a change in
Australia's image. However, it is certain that Australia's principles, 
as well as its practice in Asia will have to change. In the past, we 
have seen Australia as a follower rather than  a decision maker in  
Burma's affairs in particular. Australia must change it's practice of 
``wait and see'' on Burma's affairs.