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Burma, democracy and being consistently ‘on-message’

By Willy Bach - posted Wednesday, 3 October 2007

The bribe money that buys a champagne lifestyle for corrupt officials in the poorest nations often originates in multinational companies based in the world's richest countries. Transparency International Chairwoman Huguette Labelle

I decided to write about the democracy movement in Burma, but quickly realised that this is one of many hot spots in the world where people have a passion for democratic liberties and good governance and are using mainly peaceful means to achieve this.

What they need is the oxygen of world attention, demonstrations in every capital city, and acute embarrassment for the diplomatic representatives of their oppressors - and the UN to supervise free and fair elections.


But it is not that simple. The five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council have defence industries and intelligence services to run and domicile major corporations that operate globally. They are responsible for 80 per cent of the world arms trade.

If I named the French oil giant Total I would have to mention Unical. If I mentioned that China supplies weapons to the junta, so does Singapore, Israel and more of our “friends” than you can poke a stick at. Frankly, the Howard Government was slow off the mark.

The world community would rather stand aside and allow repressive regimes like that of Than Shwe to maintain their grip on power. Why worry about child slavery or a bloody ethnic civil war so long as the oil keeps flowing, the price of labour remains low and the debt continues to produce profits for the major banks? The community of nations will do nothing to assist our brothers and sisters who are suffering at the hands of such regimes. Tibet, East Timor, Darfur - there is a long queue for our concerns.

That is why governments like the present and previous Australian governments that proclaim their democratic credentials conduct their foreign policies in secret, allow corporations to do business on a “whatever it takes basis” (think AWB) and supply the Burmese junta and other client dictators with weapons and training and carry on business as usual. According to some reports the AFP have been training the junta’s police force.

In 2003 I was in the Ugandan capital Kampala, working as a human rights volunteer. It was the kind of job where you regularly changed “employer” (host organisation) and wrote your own job description. My boss handed me a screwed up piece of paper with a name written on it. Could I look into this disappearance? The last people to see this frightened minibus taxi conductor were at a certain police station where he sought assistance. None was given and no notes were taken either, as I discovered.

The detective I interviewed asked whether she too could become a human rights worker - a product of poor pay and conditions. It was yet another of those incidents where a battered white Toyota Corolla with frequently changed registration plates pulled up and spilt out a group of men in civilian clothes armed with AK47s. They grabbed the innocent man and bundled him into the car and sped away with his distraught sister screaming in protest. He disappeared for 11 days and miraculously returned home without evidence of torture.


I found myself conversing with a smooth-talking Army Captain in a business suit, with his uniform on a coat stand. I had entered the scary realm of the Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce (JATT). I told him I was Australian. He leant back in his swivel chair while I tried to explain the importance of Habeas Corpus. I had obviously amused him somewhat. “Yes, we have security issues here, there is al-Qaida, and there is a War on Terror. Your friend George W. Bush has this Guantánamo Bay. We have these ‘Safe Houses’. It’s the same that is good for you - it is good for us too”. I had to agree with his chilling argument, if reluctantly. If only Australia behaved like Norway!

Unlike the rogue state of Zimbabwe, Uganda is one of our “friends” and will soon host the CHOGM Conference, which will be opened by Queen Elizabeth II or another British Royal. The seal of approval is firmly placed on the credentials of this military regime. It is apparently inconvenient for all of the world's people to enjoy freedom of expression, the right to associate with all members of a like-minded humanity, the right to participate in the political life of the country in which they live. And so it has been with Burma, or Myanmar if you prefer the junta’s version.

You will be happy to know that the local Ugandan English language daily is barracking for the people on the streets of Rangoon. In the world of international relations “realists” (as they like to be known) believe that “you do whatever you do” in the selfish interests of your country. Your friends are “friends of convenience” - nothing is permanent, of course. Some of your “friends” who you give money to and arm with riot equipment, water cannons, and razor wire, armoured vehicles and interrogation techniques will get a bit “out of hand” - as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe have done.
Those of us who do have the right to vote and still have some semblance of free expression must stand shoulder to shoulder with the courageous ones who have demanded an end to brutal, oppressive governments, where ever they might be.

In spite of efforts by the Burmese military junta to block Internet sites and the mobile phone network, these images and thousands of others are getting out. We must not let these images die, even if the junta’s assassins kill the people in the pictures.

If you live in Australia get on the electoral roll immediately. Do not allow John Howard to disenfranchise you. Make sure you make good use of rights that others are denied (if they are citizens of a major trading partner we don’t like upsetting). Make sure that the opposition you vote into office is genuinely better than the Liberals. They might not be.
Make Australia a country that practices and promotes human rights, reconciles with Indigenous people and accepts responsibility for protection of asylum seekers. Let our defence forces be famous for their peace keeping, not for illegal invasions and collusion in the war crimes of other nations. It is of paramount importance that our government genuinely represents the will of the people who elect them and sends a consistent message in favour of democracy in all situations, not just when it suits them to win a few votes.

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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About the Author

Willy Bach has a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies, UQ and has submitted his thesis for a Masters at UQ School of History. He was also the Greens candidate for Griffith in 2007.

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Burma Struggle for Democracy

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