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Burma deserves more attention

Minh Nguyen
October 2004

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 intervention.

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 on Indonesia.

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