When Julie Bishop arrives in Burma this week for her first visit as Australia’s foreign minister, she may be hoping to find a model for peaceful democratic transition from decades of military rule. Instead, she’ll find a shaky, uneven reform process led by a quasi-civilian government that’s already showing deep stress fractures.
The top-down reform process led by the former army general turned President, U Thein Sein, was initially welcomed for its surprising vigor: the release of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, a major overhaul of the legal system, a rigorous parliamentary structure (albeit one held hostage by a military quota) and the signing of more than 15 ceasefire agreements with ethnic rebels after six decades of civil war. The announcements were swiftly followed by an increase in international aid and investment, the lifting of sanctions, and high-profile visits by almost every key world leader.
Yet initial optimism is quickly fading as the Burmese government back pedals on its early promises. Burma’s media is being intimidated, the country’s military is muscling in on delicate peace negotiations, widespread land grabs are fueling rural discontent, legal curbs have been placed on peaceful assembly and association, and there is continued fighting in the north between the Burmese army and ethnic rebels, despite a ceasefire.
The government and military are being increasingly obtuse on amending clauses in the constitution that prohibit Suu Kyi’s eligibility to be president and, crucially, have ignored demands from certain ethnic groups for greater autonomy. Everything points to a showdown between the government and Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, a confrontation that can severely destabilize Burma ahead of next year’s national elections.
More disturbingly, both Buddhist ultra-nationalism and anti-Islamic hate speech are on the rise, emboldened by prominent monks who urge the government to restrict inter-faith marriage, religious conversions, family planning and polygamy, all of which will adversely affect Burma’s sizeable Muslim minority.
In western Burma, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority has intensified following communal clashes in 2012 that killed hundreds and forced 180,000 people from their homes. They now live in wretched conditions, crammed into camps where the Burmese authorities are able to regulate foreign aid sent to them. A flawed nationwide census in March, which Australia helped to fund, cynically excluded the Rohingya.
Bishop is flying into a tougher bilateral relationship than one would have forecast a year ago.
Australia’s relations with Burma have generally balanced practical engagement for democratic change with consistent criticism
of the appalling human rights abuses committed during military rule. Australia has been a generous aid donor, providing assistance to refugees on the Thai-Burma border, resettling thousands of long-term refugees in Australia, and helping fund the country’s health and education sectors, so degraded after decades of inept military governance.
But as a generous donor and investor, Bishop should tell Thein Sein his bid to reform Burma will be derailed unless he addresses several key rights issues.
Her first message needs to be that ongoing mistreatment of the stateless Rohingya is unacceptable. Of course, Australia’s own appalling record on asylum seekers will render these concerns hypocritical, so Bishop should remind Burma that its repression of the Rohingya is fuelling a growing exodus that’s affecting the whole region: 86,000 Rohingya have fled to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia since 2012.
The Australian government has been far too timid on the Rohingya issue to date: when Immigration Minister Scott Morrison went to the country in February he visited camps, but failed to make any public statements calling on Burma to address the abuses from which the Rohingya are fleeing.
Bishop has said women’s empowerment will be a key priority of her visit. As such, she should raise concerns over proposed religious laws, especially a draft marriage bill that will restrict interfaith marriage. Under the proposed law, non-Buddhists who fail to convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist, or don’t seek written consent from the parents of the bride, face a 10-year prison term. Bishop should make it clear that such laws are not only discriminatory, but will further inflame inter-communal hatred.
Australia’s aid package also includes assistance to Burma’s lucrative yet opaque and corrupt mining sector, which has bred a litany of concerns over land grabs and environmental damage. As a recent report from Global Witness has highlighted, there is too little transparency in Burma’s extractive industry and Australia’s assistance should be designed to compel this sector to become genuinely rights respecting and open, and ultimately benefit more than just a handful of foreign investors and those with military connections.
Bishop should make it clear that, while Canberra will continue to support genuine reform, if Burma allows hatred, violence and exclusion to flourish unchecked, the very reform process Australia is investing in will be derailed.
David Scott Mathieson is a senior researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on July 1, 2014.