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How Australia can help Burma

Published in: Asia Times Online

BANGKOK - The long-anticipated review of United States policy towards Myanmar was rolled out recently, and it was anti-climactic. Announced in February by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who argued that neither engagement nor sanctions had worked, the review dragged on for months before concluding that the US would begin tentative "pragmatic engagement" with the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). It would also keep in place sanctions and other punitive measures. Senior members of the US State Department have already begun initial talks with various members of the regime.

Australia has an often overlooked key role to play in drawing military ruled Myanmar out of its isolation, and is well placed to play a prominent supporting position in international efforts to engage the SPDC. Australia's Myanmar policy [1] is "well-rounded", with its emphasis on rigorous, principled diplomacy, generous humanitarian assistance, a ban on defense exports, and targeted sanctions against hundreds of key Myanmar military leaders and their close family and business associates.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith are tough talking and principled on human rights in Myanmar, especially after the September 2007 Buddhist monk-led uprising was brutally crushed, the initial official blocking of foreign relief aid after the May 2008 cyclone, and the political show trial this year of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Kevin Rudd called Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi's conviction and sentencing to a further 18 months under house arrest in August a "new low for the Burmese [Myanmar] regime". Stephen Smith raised the "need to put even more pressure on the [Myanmar] regime to move down the path of democracy" and promised to update Australia's extant sanctions on the regime "and keep them focused for maximum impact".

This is precisely what the SPDC needs to hear. The message roughly is: "We don't like what you're doing, but we are dead-set on continuing to help your people." This is also what the dithering optimism and business-focused engagement of Myanmar's neighbors China, India, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries need to recognize, and modify their approaches. Engagement is urgently needed with many facets of Myanmar state and society, including, and in many respects especially, the military itself.

There is a long list of issues that Australia and the rest of the international community must not concede. The immediate and unconditional release of more than 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar [2], including Suu Kyi, and serious steps taken to make the scheduled elections in 2010 genuinely fair and inclusive are core concerns that must remain atop of the agenda.

The cessation of military operations against ethnic nationalities along Myanmar's borderlands is crucial, as is opening up the space for foreign and domestic humanitarian assistance programs, especially the resumption of all International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) activities [3] in the country, most of which have been suspended since early 2006.

Emphasize teamwork
Australia can recalibrate its Myanmar policy for more bilateral effect and multilateral influence in three key areas: diplomacy, humanitarian assistance and sanctions.

Australia is already on the outspoken end of international frustration with the SPDC. This must continue, and can in an important way if the government appoints a specific Myanmar envoy to coordinate bilateral diplomatic efforts, Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) programs, and multilateral initiatives in the United Nations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and with other key states such as China, Japan, India, the US, European Union member states and Russia.

A potential Australian Myanmar envoy, ideally an eminent Australian who wields the sort of international gravitas the prestige-conscious Myanmar military respects, can coordinate with other country envoys and the efforts by the UN secretary general's (UNSG) special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari.

Someone with solid regional experience like former Australian army General John Sanderson, who led the UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia in the 1990s, or even General Peter Cosgrove, the leader of the international intervention in East Timor, would likely impress the military-led SPDC and certainly gain support from key ASEAN states.

The US has congressional legislative provisions to appoint their own Myanmar envoy and policy advisor, but nearly two years after it was announced as part of the JADE Act the administration has yet to name anyone to that post. Australia can set an example by taking this important initiative first.

The appointment of country-specific envoys would not just bolster the "Good Offices" mission of the UNSG, which has unfortunately shown little progress so far with the SPDC, but could also propel the formation of a "Contact Group" of key states on Myanmar: China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Australia, to move beyond the perception that international criticism of Myanmar just emanates from Western countries.

Currently, most multilateral efforts reside in the so-called "Group of Friends of Myanmar" in the United Nations, a limp sounding and largely supine collective predicated on less confrontational approaches to dealing with the Myanmar government. These feckless multilateral initiatives need to be bolstered by a more hard-core grouping, with less vocal US leadership and more multilateral solidarity.

The SPDC thrives on divide and rule, domestically and internationally, so more purpose must be shown in speaking with a unified voice. Australia and Indonesia, as key middle-ranking states in the region, and largely of similar mind if different public statements on Myanmar could take the lead in forming such a Contact Group.

One of the most important considerations for Australia's regional security concerns is Myanmar's links with North Korea and the long speculated but unverified collusion on a nuclear program in Myanmar. Kurt Campbell, the US State Department Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, gave a briefing on the Myanmar policy review on September 28 in which he said, "Concerns have emerged in recent days about [Myanmar] and North Korea's relationship that require greater focus and dialogue", and specifically cited UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 on North Korea's proliferation of weapons of mass-destruction as points of cooperation with the SPDC.

Australia too has deep concerns about the possibility, even if at this point very distant, of Myanmar acquiring a nuclear capability. Taking diplomacy more seriously should not just work towards a better human rights situation inside Myanmar, but it should also address the numerous unknowns of the SPDC's military buildup.

Donate generously, but fairly
On humanitarian assistance, Australia is already one of the best donors addressing Myanmar's immense developmental challenges of poverty alleviation, deteriorating health conditions, and in human rights protection. AusAID provisions to Myanmar [4] are an annual A$29 million (US$26 million), with an extra A$55 million for post cyclone relief.

Much of this funding goes in the right direction. If anything, Australia could be more generous, something that could be said of most international humanitarian donors who are only now realizing the immense needs inside Myanmar. The reality is that with all the impediments and ineptitude placed in donors' paths by the SPDC, a lot of good can be done by supporting communities survive the capricious and self-centered regime, which must take the blame for most of the humanitarian misery produced by military rule.

Australia is also very generous in its acceptance of refugees from Myanmar, resettling thousands of mostly ethnic-Karen from long standing camps situated on the Thailand-Myanmar border, while also continuing to fund agencies supporting an estimated 140,000 civilians still languishing in those camps. However, there appears to be reluctance within the Australian bureaucracy to support urgently needed humanitarian assistance to Myanmar civilians in conflict zones, often erroneously termed "cross-border assistance".

In fact, supporting health and livelihood initiatives "cross-border" is actually providing humanitarian assistance to Myanmar: all of the existing programs in conflict areas are conducted by ethnic Myanmar groups, often on the run from the SPDC army, and necessarily clandestine, but definitely needed. Providing financial assistance to these projects from Thailand, China, India or Bangladesh is more efficient, realistic and practical than going through Yangon, as most UN and other international aid groups must do. 

In essence, such support is keeping alive thousands of people in desperate situations, something the Myanmar military and their routinely brutal campaigns to interdict livelihoods in conflict areas want to stamp out. These military operations often represent brazen breaches of international humanitarian law. Many other donors already support such initiatives and they don't advertise it for security reasons. Australia can take the same approach very easily, by recognizing that even a little money goes a long way to supporting people to survive.

Target sanctions effectively
Lastly is the vexed issue of sanctions. It is impossible to conclude that international sanctions have had their desired effect: for the SPDC to respect the human rights of the Myanmar people. Yet they retain a certain symbolic utility, reminding the regime of how their reprehensible actions transgress international norms of acceptable behavior. Removing the sanctions too fast sends the wrong message, especially when the SPDC makes their repeal such a prominent condition for negotiation. Sanctions, therefore, have a prime usefulness, and should be scrapped only incrementally in line with significant concessions from the regime.

The list of targeted officials and individuals by the Reserve Bank [5] updated in October 2008 lists 463 people who substantially benefit from military rule in Myanmar. This all sounds great, but its only half-way there. Australia has measures it is not yet using - for example, Australia's sanctions regime currently applies to hundreds of designated Myanmar individuals but not any of the companies under their control or others known to underwrite the junta's abusive rule. The list of sanctions targets should be extended to cover companies owned, controlled by, or substantially benefiting Myanmar's military. This information is readily available if the resources are directed to investigate it.

Also, Australia specifically blocks transfers of funds or payments involving designated persons, yet does not bar other types of financial services and transactions. Most notably, Australia's current measures do not fully freeze assets held by such persons in Australia, nor clearly block dealings with those individuals that involve Australian persons and institutions operating from other countries. Firm steps are needed to fully enforce sanctions so that key Myanmar officials named as targets are not able to derive benefit from assets in Australia or handled by Australian institutions.

Australia must not wait for evidence of genuine concessions from the SPDC to repeal its present sanctions, it should wrest the initiative back from the regime by re-calibrating its targeted measures now. It can do this in two important ways. First, by tightening up its list of SPDC officials and by including specific key companies or Myanmar military controlled entities with direct links to the regime. Second, Australia can make more effort in coordinating sanctions with the US, European Union, Switzerland, and Canada to target key individuals, both military and civilian, who bear responsibility for abuses and whose considerable financial support of the SPDC could undermine these sanctions. These individuals are at the apex of the system inside Myanmar and susceptible to this kind of pressure.

More effective coordination could also lead to greater support from other key states such as Japan, Singapore and Thailand. Australia should work with European and other countries to adopt full financial sanctions and encourage other governments to impose complementary measures. Slow implementation by sanctioning governments, including Australia, and poor coordination internationally have undermined financial and other sanctions, and kept them from realizing their potential. Australia can remedy this by taking a more robust multilateral leadership in coordinating one list of persons and companies for all sanctioning countries to agree on, making it small, effective and adaptable for maximum effect.

Listen to the Lady
In a letter sent by Suu Kyi to President Than Shwe on September 25, the detained democracy leader urged negotiations on the lifting of sanctions, and specifically requested leave to consult with the Australian ambassador in Yangon, something she did recently (albeit with a lower official because the ambassador was on holiday at the time), as well as the UK ambassador and a representative of the European Union.

This is an important step, and countries with sanctions already in place should consult not just with Suu Kyi but many other opposition figures and business leaders to think of a gradual repeal of sanctions - but only when there is a complete release of political prisoners and genuine progress on opening up the political system to encourage community participation ahead of the elections in 2010.

In the interim, tightening specific targeted sanctions is one way of focusing the SPDC's attention on what they stand to lose from treating enhanced talks with the international community with their instinctively cynical self-interest, and importantly on what they should be considering: the welfare of their own people and a real chance to start a genuine process of national reconciliation. A more effective sanctions regime, targeted, nuanced, adaptive and effective, also sends clear messages to sanctions-skeptic countries such as Singapore, Japan, Thailand, India and China, that they can have an effect and also disrupt the flow of SPDC funds and regime members' private finances.

Recent sanctions called for by the Burma Campaign Australia, supported by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), on Australian-owned budget airline JetStar Asia flights between Singapore and Yangon, and some textiles imports, hark back to the consumer boycotts of the 1990s and not on the sort of better-targeted measures designed to genuinely impact on the regime rather than the people of Myanmar, who have suffered enough.

There is also the sanctions option that no state in the international community has seriously considered: a multilateral arms embargo on Myanmar through the UN Security Council. Australia is probably the best placed of Western countries to support this initiative, potentially with Canada, within the UN system.

Australia's Myanmar policy should be lauded for its considered balance and the continued expression of support for a free and democratic Myanmar by most if not all members of the federal parliament. With just a few policy tweaks, a little more money, and a substantial investment in multilateral diplomacy, Australia could provide the kind of renewed international and regional guidance on engaging Myanmar that is now desperately needed.

Notes
1. See Burma Country Brief.
2. See Burma's Forgotten Prisoners
3. See The ICRC in Myanmar
4. See the Burma file.
5. See Banking (foreign exchange) regulations 1959 sanctions against Burma

David Scott Mathieson is Burma researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

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