Saturday, June 25, 2011

No big policy shifts from new Australian PM, activists say

Friday, 25 June 2010 18:48 Kyaw Mya

New Delhi (Mizzima) - Burmese activists in Australia are not expecting any big foreign policy shifts on Burma, they said, after Julia Gillard was sworn in as the country’s first woman prime minister, vowing to bring changes to the government on the domestic front.

Labor Party incumbent Kevin Rudd stepped aside for his former deputy Gillard to take power early yesterday in an apparent bid to save face ahead of a party leadership vote he was assured he would lose.

It was a speedy exit for the first Labor prime minister to be ousted in his first term, spurred by party fears over recent polls that put the opposition ahead of Labor for the first time since January 2006, according to a June 3 Nielsen poll. National broadcaster ABC’s PM programme last night reported that: “A little under 24 hours passed between the time Ms Gillard was convinced to run and the moment she was elected unopposed.”

“The only change is the deputy prime minister and the prime minister so I don’t think there will be any dynamic changes in Burmese-related issues,” Dr. Myint Cho, a spokesman for Burma Campaign Australia, said.

Dr. Myint Cho added that Rudd’s position towards military-ruled Burma had been satisfactory because of his depth of knowledge on Burmese issues from his previous stint as shadow minister of foreign affairs.

“He worked very hard to draw [the] attention of parliamentarians and government to focus on Burmese issues,” he said. “When he was the opposition leader he promised me that if he restores [Labor to] the administration, he would try to lobby international communities to introduce the idea of a global arms embargo and commissions of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Burmese regime. When he became prime minister he did as he had spoken.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith told Parliament in an update on Burma in February that Australia had placed financial sanctions on the military regime in 2007 – a response to the violent crackdown on protests led by monks against the junta,  the “saffron revolution”. It also recently began engaging the regime on counter-narcotics, human trafficking and disaster relief challenges.

He said Australia welcomed the US approach that combined engagement, sanctions and humanitarian assistance, and outlined that Australian aid was to increase over the next three years to A$50 million (US$43.3 million) annually. Last year, Aung Sang Suu Kyi asked the junta for a meeting with representatives from the European Union, the US and Australia to discuss the withdrawal of international sanctions.

Australia agreed with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that to lift sanctions would send the wrong message but agreed not to expand them. Australia continues to push for dialogue with the Burmese authorities, Smith said.

Though Gillard is expected to leave Australia’s external relations unchanged, she is under pressure from the Labor Party, keen to yet again appeal to key voters – sections of the Australian working and lower-middle classes – in a crackdown on asylum-seeking boatpeople. Gillard said she understood Australians’ concerns over the number of boat arrivals and pledged stronger border control, according to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Unlike Rudd, a former diplomat and foreign policy expert, Gillard has little experience in the field. Gillard’s holding of the portfolios of education, employment and workplace relations and social inclusion, led Dr. Myint Cho to conclude that she would not be as interested in Burmese issues as was her predecessor.

“But the good thing is there are lots of Labor MPs [members of parliament] who are interested in Burmese issues,” he said. “As long as foreign minister Stephen Smith is in position, I don’t worry about their [Australia’s] position on Burma issues.”

But activist groups working on Burmese issues disagree with Australia’s stasis regarding sanctions, and have sought their widening, citing Australian investment in Burma’s energy resources, which they said supported a brutal regime.

Australia’s Twinza Oil is the parent company of Danford Equities Corporation, which is conducting tests in the Yetagun East Block, in the Gulf of Martaban, after signing a production exploration contract with the state-owned Burma (Myanmar) Oil and Gas Enterprise in November 2006, according to Burma Campaign Australia.

Twinza Oil’s project will provide the military regime with an estimated US$2.5 billion, and it is believed that with the help of such investments the regime’s nuclear ambitions are also proceeding, it said.

On the deal, Sharan Burrow, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions wrote in the New Matilda online journal last year that: “By itself, this contract with an Australian company promises the Burmese junta enough money to run roughly one quarter of its military – the world’s 12th-largest – for a decade.”

That is also a lot of money that will never reach Burmese people.

Smith also told the Australian Parliament in February that half of Burma’s roughly 50 million people live in extreme poverty, which means they cannot meet the basic needs for food, water, shelter, sanitation, and health care. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than US$1.25 per day.

Additional reporting by Perry Santanchote

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