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ON DIT: IN SOLIDARITY WITH BURMA
Received: by pilot.physics.adelaide.edu.au (5.61+IDA+MU/UA-5.23)id AA18702; Thu, 29 Dec 1994 16:17:42 +1030
NOTE: THIS ARTICLE IS DATING BACK A LITTLE. IT IS PUBLISHED IN
AUGUST 3, 1992 IN THE ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY STUDENT UNION'S
WEEKLY PUBLICATION, NAMED `ON DIT'. SOME PUBLICATIONS AT HAND -
THOUGH IT MIGHT FIND NOT QUITE RELEVANT AT PRESENT - WILL BE SEND
TO THE NET FOR INFORMATION AS TIME PERMITS. WITH REGARDS, U NE OO.
ON DIT: AUGUST 3, 1992 .
IN SOLIDARITY WITH BURMA
( 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
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
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.