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Burma and Bipartisanism

By Ronan Lee - posted Thursday, 29 March 2012

Since Burma's notionally civilian government assumed office last March the country has seen some genuinely positive change. A fantasy just two years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are today campaigning for by-elections throughout Burma. Measured political prisoner amnesties have accompanied greater press freedoms and protesters opposing the controversial Myitsone Dam were met not with arrests and lengthy jail terms but with a policy reversal.

These changes are all indications Burma's new government, for so long an international pariah, plans to move the country towards the Asian mainstream in terms of human rights, political, legal and economic freedoms.

Economic sanctions by western nations remain but the revolving door of western foreign ministers visiting Burma has granted the Nay Pyi Taw based government a legitimacy it could only have dreamed about when the widely criticised 2010 national elections took place.


Obviously, politically the most significant visit was by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The US was only a few years ago comparing Burma's ruling Generals with the now departed rulers of Iraq and North Korea.

Such comparisons gave credibility to rumours, repeated many times during my visits to Burma by both opposition and military supporters, that someday there would be a US-led action to remove the military from power in Burma, just like in Iraq.

Outsiders might be quick to discount this notion but the Burmese government's actions in suddenly moving the capital from Yangon to the more easily defended inland Nay Pyi Taw helped cement the feeling among a large part of the population that the government was most certainly taking the threat seriously.

Tragically, it is also rumoured this fear of an Iraq-type US action contributed to Burma's refusal to immediately accept humanitarian aid from the US and others in the aftermath of the Cyclone Nargis disaster.

The message of Clinton's visit is straightforward - the US has no intention of invading and now accepts the legitimacy of the new government. While supportive of Aung San Suu Kyi who Clinton would, no doubt, prefer to be leading Burma, the US expects the opposition to work within the country's new system of government. By meeting with Suu Kyi, foreign notables are making clear they expect Nay Pyi Taw to similarly work with the opposition if there is to a lifting of economic sanctions.

The precise form of cooperation the west considers acceptable as a pre-condition for the removal of sanctions is never made publicly clear but few doubt, if Burma is to continue under civilian rule, the government will need to make some accommodation of the popular Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in order to maintain stability and support for the new system of government.


A situation where Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy candidates are successful in next week's by-elections, form an opposition rump in the Parliament and are treated in much the same manner as western governments' treat their own oppositions is unlikely the type of cooperation expected. Yet this is precisely what will happen if Burma's President Thien Sein follows a western example of how to work with a Parliamentary opposition.

Western governments do not have a good track record of working co-operatively with their oppositions unless the national situation is dire, for instance in war time. Queensland's former-Premier Anna Bligh lowered the bar even further recently suggesting, almost Burmese junta-style, her opponent, now Premier Campbell Newman would soon find himself in jail.

Western foreign ministers now need to do more than fly to Nay Pyi Taw, lecture the Burmese about cooperation, meet Suu Kyi before jetting home to a poisonous relationship with their own opposition. The Burmese government sees this for what it is - the west lecturing a less-developed country and then playing the game by different rules themselves. It is time the west made some efforts to demonstrate at least something like the domestic bipartnership they are demanding of the Burmese.

Australia has an opportunity to do this with new Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr who will likely visit Burma in the near future and he could include Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop in this visit. This would allow Carr to make a clean break from the Kevin Rudd strategy of engagement with Burma which was strong on rhetoric about human rights, political freedom and cooperation but was ultimately weakened by Rudd's close relationship with Australia's trading partner China who practices nothing of what Rudd preached to the trade sanctioned-Burmese.

By no means should Carr let Burma's rulers off the hook about the need to release political prisoners and increase the country's deplorable health and education spending but demonstrating Australia's government is capable of working co-operatively with their opposition Carr could be even more strident in his expectations for Burmese improvement in these areas. And he could legitimately push the Burmese to engage with Suu Kyi and the opposition.

Australia has an opportunity to be something more to the Burmese than just another hypocritical western voice telling them how to run their country. We know Bob Carr can talk the talk when it comes to policy but the Burmese have seen that before from Australia and other western nations. If Australia wants Burma's new government to cooperate with its opposition then maybe it is time for Australia's new Foreign Minister to do the same.

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About the Author

Ronan Lee is a political consultant and former Greens MP and adviser. He has traveled extensively in Burma, observing the 2010 elections and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi in the days following her release from house arrest.

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