Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wrong signal: Australia’s easing of sanctions


Tuesday, 10 January 2012 12:04 Dr. Myint Cho

(Commentary) – Australia’s recent decision to remove some Burmese figures, including former junta ministers and deputy ministers who are no longer in politics, from the sanction list is premature and a wrong signal to Burma’s quasi-civilian regime and the international community.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said on Monday that the government has decided to reduce the number of Burmese figures to whom Australia's autonomous financial and travel sanctions apply in recognition of steps taken by the Burmese regime towards democracy and greater regional engagement.

Rudd’s announcement contradicts what the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated in November last year. Gillard spoke with Burmese President Thein Sein on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Bali on November 19, and warned that Australia's support for the Burmese government and any review of current Australian sanctions would carry strict conditions.

Gillard told reporters in Bali, “I made the point to him that Australia welcomes the progress that has been made in Burma. But I do want to be very, very clear. There is a lot more to do in Burma in releasing political prisoners, in ensuring that there is proper democratic structures and that there are proper responses for human rights and I made that point directly to the president.”

Burma activists and human rights groups in Australia were encouraged by her remarks, but they are now disappointed by Rudd’s announcement. So is the Australian Greens, which has been a long time supporter of the Burmese democracy movement.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said, “There are still more than 1,500 political prisoners behind bars in Burma and military attacks on civilians were stepped up in 2011. Why is the Australian government rewarding this wretched conduct?”

Rudd said that he hopes recent positive developments will continue – such as increased participation of opposition parties, the release of political prisoners and new laws to legalise trade unions. His hope will not become real by the premature easing of sanctions.

To make matters far worse, the Australia’s decision to ease its sanctions on Burma may be undermining the actions of its partners – the U.S., Canada and E.U. – which have not yet considered lifting sanctions on Burma because of their ongoing concerns about many of the regime’s policies that have to be reversed.

During her visit to Burma, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. “would like to see more political prisoners released…a real political process and real elections…an end to the conflicts, particularly the terrible conflicts with ethnic minorities. The U.S. is willing to match actions with actions.”

Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi also welcomed the changes in the country and agreed to cooperate with the regime for the sake of the country and the people, but she stated that Burma’s sanctions should be lifted only when the regime meets the demands made by countries that imposed them.

Like the U.S., Canada and E.U., Australia has imposed sanctions on Burma and consistently demanded the release of all political prisoners, the cessation of human rights abuses, and the beginning of an all-inclusive political dialogue for national reconciliation and democratisation.

Australia imposed an arms embargo after the military junta inhumanely crushed the “People’s Power Movement” in 1988. It imposed visa bans on the junta figures and their supporters following the “Depayin Massacre” in 2003. It also imposed targeted financial sanctions on more than 400 individuals, including the junta figures and their associates and supporters following the brutal crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution” led by Buddhist monks in 2007.

The former junta Senior-General Than Shwe and his protégé, including ministers and deputy ministers in the military junta, are held responsible for serious human rights abuses during their 23-year repressive rule. Although they are no longer in politics today, they still deserve sanctions because of their previous actions and because their proxy government has not met the international demands.

Instead of easing sanctions on Burma prematurely, Australia should do more to help the people of Burma by setting a time frame for the Australian demands. Australia should also lobby the regional powers such as China, India and Japan as well as Asean to take coordinated actions to convince the Burmese regime to meet the demands. Otherwise, the Australian demands will be ignored.

Dr. Myint Cho is director of the Sydney-based Burma Office and has been working for the promotion of democracy and human rights in Burma since 1984.

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