Kevin Rudd tells Burma to open up if it wants world’s respect

source from The Australian, 9 July 2011

Buddhist monk

A Buddhist monk at Burma’s holiest shrine, the 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Picture: Paul Myers Source: The Australian

WHEN Kevin Rudd last week became the first Australian Foreign Minister to visit Burma in almost a decade, he obtained a rare albeit brief official glimpse of a muddled, schizophrenic country, the government of which seems incapable of knowing if it wants a respected place in the global community.

Even before embarking on Friday last week on the tortuous 10-hour return drive from the old-world comfort of the Strand hotel in Yangon to the new soulless, purpose-built capital of Naypyidaw to meet President Thein Sein, he and his staff knew what every visitor to Burma soon grasps: the resources-rich, culturally diverse but economically depleted former British colony that last year secured its first elected government in almost 50 years is a maverick. It can’t be categorised like any other developing nation. And that’s the worry.

Burma is a complex mixture of contradictions and superstitions that are almost as baffling to its people as to foreigners. Like Zimbabwe and North Korea, Burma’s inexorable, pitiless leaders fuel their own greed, exercise at times ruthless control and leave the people to fend the best way they can, often with tragic results.


Strategically wedged between the booming economies of China to its north, Thailand and Southeast Asia to its east and India to the west, the nation of 47 million people is at a tipping point.

If, as Rudd pointed out at the end of his two-day visit, its leaders take their promised pathway to democracy and economic reform, the international community will help guide the way. But if they continue to follow what some in Burma refer to as “the Nigeria model” of official bastardry mixed with graft, corruption and powerful economic warlords with friends in high places, it will remain an isolated, dangerous outcast, with China its logical economic and political ally.

Rudd has a clear sense of this. He told Sein and other senior officials that the world was watching and waiting for Burma to begin implementing democratic and economic reforms. He also made a personal appeal for the release of the country’s known 2150 political prisoners, 250 of whom are Buddhist monks. This, he said, would be fundamental in shaping international political opinion towards Burma’s new government. If the political prisoners – many of whom have been incarcerated for years – weren’t released, it would be a “real impediment” for countries including Australia and the US to formally engage with Naypyidaw.

Sein, a former army general who was prime minister for four years until he became President in March, was impassive and gave no commitment.

As Australia is Burma’s second largest aid donor, Rudd also pointedly linked increases in aid to clear evidence of reform.

“It’s a package,” he told Inquirer in Yangon on Saturday before returning to Canberra. Australian aid to Burma will reach $50 million in 2012-13, an important though small contribution towards tackling malaria, tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS, reducing poverty and increasing literacy.

Rudd also left Sein under no illusion that the safety of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a fundamental international expectation. Pointedly, he met the 66-year-old people’s hero, inviting photographers from two foreign press agencies to record the occasion.

The significance of this deliberate symbolism can’t be overestimated. Suu Kyi, who was released from seven years of house arrest three days after last November’s elections, has been preparing to travel outside Yangon. But on Thursday – the day Rudd arrived – she received a letter from the government warning her not to participate in political activity.

Also last week, the government’s reactionary mouthpiece, the weekly New Light of Myanmar newspaper, published an item warning of possible harm to her if she travelled to the regions. This is about as direct as it gets in Burma. In May 2003, a government-inspired attack on her convoy in a country region resulted in the death of four bodyguards and, subsequently, at least 70 others.

Now Rudd is the first Western Foreign Minister to visit Burma since the elections and his vivid public support for Suu Kyi, with its unstated but obvious collaboration with the US, has drawn a line in the sand that even Burma’s leaders may find difficult to cross.

On the streets of Yangon, life – such as it is in Burma – goes on. There is no sign of military presence but, people warn, “they are there”. As they were in mid-2007 when troops quashed a protest by Buddhist monks, several of whom were killed, with hundreds later jailed.

For reasons best known to themselves and at a date that was astrologically chosen, the generals abdicated from Yangon to their new enclave in Naypyidaw in 2006, leaving behind mansions protected by razor wire on the outskirts of a city that is otherwise crumbling from neglect.

Despite the absence of a visible military presence, the heavy hand of officialdom rules. Motorbikes and scooters are banned, supposedly to stop congestion, but locals say it is because of paranoia about security.

The city’s estimated 40,000 street vendors, all of whom rely on their meagre takings for survival, are being removed, supposedly because they add to congestion and offend tourists.

Cash is king. No one has a bank account because they don’t trust the small number of government and private banks, which deal mostly in funds transfers for businesses and wealthy individuals, most of whom are connected to the government in some way. There are no credit cards or ATM facilities. Money-changers loiter on every corner, seeking larger denomination new US banknotes. Old and creased or torn greenbacks are taboo, even in shops and hotels.

Officially, the government books imports at 5.5 kyats to the dollar, while the street rate is 700 to 800 and 600 in hotels. This discrepancy is just one of many opportunities for official corruption.

Virtually nobody speaks openly, especially in dissent, although many say things have improved – albeit slightly – since the elections. The kyat is up more than 50 per cent from 1300 to the dollar a year ago and stores selling the latest widescreen televisions and electrical equipment are plentiful on Yangon’s busy Merchant Road.

There are two million CDMA mobile phones in Burma and everyone under 30 seems to have one. Foreign mobiles, however, rarely get a signal. SIM cards for GSM handsets can be bought occasionally, but that’s no guarantee of a connection. Internet access is a lottery. Many websites, even for innocuous email accounts such as BigPond, are blocked.

A Buddhist monk at Burma’s holiest shrine, the wonderful 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, is one of few people prepared to say what everyone is thinking.

“They just changed their clothes,” he remarks, referring to the 27 ministers and deputies in the previous government who took off their uniforms to stand as civilians in the election.

While 110 of the 440 seats in the lower house were reserved for the military, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which comprises present and former military officers and their lackeys, secured 259 or 78 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives and 129 of 168 contested seats in the upper house.

The elderly monk, who was jailed for three years after the 2007 protests and released late last year, knew Rudd was in town last weekend. He also knows Australia is supporting “the lady”.

“We need Australia to continue helping us,” he says, almost expectantly.

You don’t have to look far to see the need. Poverty, although not as visible as in India, is endemic. People sift through rubbish and makeshift humpies can be seen on the edge of the city.

A taxi driver says people in Burma have become heartless and greedy, even in schools where, he explains, teachers expect gifts to give proper attention to children’s education.

Burma’s official heartlessness was no more apparent than in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Not only did the junta prevent international aid agencies entering the country for 10 days – by which time most of the 140,000 deaths had occurred – it cracked down on individuals who helped.

Despite the 2008 constitution stating that “every citizen … has the right to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions”, the opposite is the norm.

The media is one of many targets of government paranoia. All publications are censored by the Orwellian-like Press Scrutiny Board, some more than others, as Australian publisher of The Myanmar Times, Ross Dunkley, has discovered. Dunkley, who ran foul of the government after 12 years in the country, was arrested in January and last week convicted on a dubious assault charge, must submit all pages of his weekly newspapers to the censors every Friday. Substitute stories and pages are prepared in advance, as anything from 15 per cent to 30 per cent of content is routinely removed.

Dunkley’s original Burmese partner, Sonny Swe, is serving a 14-year jail term for allegedly breaching the censorship rules. Not coincidentally, his father, former general Thein Swe, who was in charge of military intelligence that initially controlled censorship, had previously crossed the regime and is serving a 152-year sentence for corruption and economic crimes.

Despite Burma’s many problems, tourism is increasing rapidly, especially now that Suu Kyi has softened her stance against foreigners visiting the country. The northern towns of Bagan and Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River are by far the main attractions.

Riverboats with tourists are crowding the Irrawaddy and balloon flights over the 4000 pagodas at Bagan are often booked out months in advance.

Despite this, and the government’s desire to promote tourism, a visa-on-arrival system has been scrapped. Australians must apply for a visa at the Myanmar embassy in Canberra.

Meanwhile, as Western leaders watch and wait for signals to emerge about Burma’s future path, they may as well consult astrologers. It is, after all, what the generals do to the point of absurdity in deciding which way they’ll turn next.

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  • By Water Sign « Stuck Pig on July 12, 2011 at 2:30 am

    […] Kevin Rudd tells Burma to open up if it wants world’s respect ( […]

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