Burma Will Improve Human Rights

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In the past six months, Burma's President Thein Sein has been starting to say some of the right things about the need for reform, and enough has been said for us to dare to believe that change, of some sort, is under way.

We can dare to believe there is a better chance for reform in Burma than there has been for more than 20 years, possibly since the 1962 military coup.

This week there is word the Burmese government may soon release a large number of Burma's prisoners. It is not yet known how many of these will be drawn from the 2000 or so political prisoners held in Burma's jails, but we have been looking for this change.

Through many long years, Australia has been gravely concerned by Burma's systematic and extensive suppression of human rights. Denial of freedom of expression and association, use of force against peaceful protesters, systematic torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and denial of minority rights: these are all tragic parts of Burma's past and present.

But when I visited Burma in July this year, it was clear the country was at a crossroads.

I met Aung San Suu Kyi, who emphasised that the release of political prisoners and greater freedoms for political parties were central to reform. When I met Burma's leadership, this was at the top of my agenda. I explained to the President and others that Australia shared Suu Kyi's view and said the release of prisoners and political freedoms were key if Burma was to hope for international respectability.

This was a message I also conveyed later in a letter to Burma's Home Affairs Minister, in which I encouraged the Burmese authorities to open a dialogue with Suu Kyi. These discussions have since begun.

These signs of reform, a long time coming, are indeed welcome.

Last month, the Burmese government also announced its decision to suspend construction of the Myitsone Dam, a $3.6 billion project funded by Chinese investors. The Burmese government can speak for itself as to the reasons for this decision, but what is important is that the government has listened to the views of its citizens, a great number of whom were strongly opposed to the dam. Among the key advocates calling for the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project was Suu Kyi.

There has been a range of other positive developments, some well publicised, others less so. First, on September 5, Burma announced the establishment of a new National Human Rights Commission. It will need to be judged by its actions, but its establishment is a welcome first step. The commission's public call this week for the release of prisoners of conscience is a positive development, and we hope it will also focus on how Burma can begin addressing longstanding justice and accountability concerns.

Second, the parliament passed new labour laws last month which, if implemented effectively, will bring Burma more closely into line with international norms and International Labour Organisation standards. Again the real test will be in the implementation, but the finalisation of these new laws is welcome.

Finally, in the past month there has been a marked relaxation of restrictions on access to a range of international media websites within Burma. Even Burma's own tightly controlled media has begun to report more freely, including on Suu Kyi.

This is a critical juncture for Burma. Beyond the release of political prisoners and genuine progress towards democratic reform, the international community wants to encourage deep and durable reforms that improve the lives of the Burmese people in a range of areas. We need to be clear and transparent in identifying what further steps Burma needs to take. As Burma's political processes evolve, we want to see greater political freedom and ongoing physical security for opposition figures, including Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.

The Burmese government also needs to do better in delivering basic services to its people. As the second largest donor of aid to the Burmese people, Australia has made clear that we are serious about supporting reform efforts in the key sectors of education and health. Increased Burmese government spending in these areas is required.

Australia urges a re-commitment of all sides to existing ceasefires, to provide space for peaceful negotiated settlement of Burma's longstanding ethnic conflicts, with the Burmese government working closely with UN and humanitarian organisations to meet the needs of displaced and vulnerable populations, particularly in the southeast border areas.

It is in our collective interests to work with those who want reform in Burma.

A stable, more democratic and more prosperous Burma is clearly in the interests of the Burmese people. It is also in Australia's and the region's strategic interests. For these reasons we will do all that is in our power to press for the change the people of Burma so desperately deserve.

We dare to hope, but the jury is still out.

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