Burma’s millstone milestone
October 20, 2008 12:00am
IN September 2007 the anti-government “Saffron Revolution” sparked by thousands of monks was brutally crushed by Burmese security forces.
Since then things have only got worse, with 2008 a milestone year for suffering in South-East Asia’s least-developed country.
August 8, for example, was the 20th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy “8888” student uprising, in which thousands were killed.
This year also marked 60 years since Burma gained independence under national hero Aung San.
During that time her husband has died and her children have become adults without her.
This year we also had Cyclone Nargis, which left 130,000 people dead and millions homeless, havoc compounded by the junta’s failure to allow international relief efforts.
This was particularly callous because the regime lacks not just the will to help its own people, but also the means. After decades of maladministration, Burma, once the richest country in South-East Asia, is now the poorest and most corrupt.
Sadly, the junta of Senior General Than Shwe, has other priorities.
Motivated by paranoid fear of international interference, and encouraged by soothsayers, they abruptly moved the capital city 400km north from Rangoon (Yangon) to remote Naypyidaw in November 2005.
Relocating thousands of bureaucrats to a remote construction site, the generals hope to guarantee their own security through even greater isolation from their people.
There is little hope for change.
Despite massive international criticism, Burma’s military rulers ordered a vote on a new constitution perpetuating their grip on power, postponed for only a few weeks in cyclone-hit areas.
There is no doubt that the huge “yes” result was rigged.
Burmese are now one of the fastest-growing refugee communities within Australia.
Australia accepts about 13,000 people on humanitarian and refugee grounds annually, but in the past 12 months 2600 of them were Burmese – our largest intake ever, and more than doubling the total of the past five years.
Burma, therefore, now matters more to Australia than ever before.
So, what to do?
Last year, Australia imposed harsh sanctions against the military junta. These have achieved almost nothing and most ASEAN countries now reject punitive measures, claiming they punish the people, not the junta.
ASEAN states are also concerned that sanctions will push Burma into alliance with China, giving Beijing access to the Indian Ocean, “encircling” South-East Asia.
Unsurprisingly, China even supported the sham constitutional referendum.
In any case, no strategy has worked in the past 20 years, so a new approach is needed to prevent a tragedy like North Korea or Zimbabwe.
This could be led by the nations in our neighbourhood, who have the most at stake if Burma fails.
The growing diaspora is a warning to Canberra to rethink its policy on Burma before that country’s long trajectory of misery hits rock-bottom.
Prof Tim Lindsey is director of the Asian Law Centre at Melbourne University, where Melissa Crouch is a PhD candidate and researcher