Human Rights, Burma

July 21, 2010


The Hon. T.A. JENNINGS (19:55): I move:

That this council:

1.Notes the 5 March 2010 report of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar documents 'a pattern of gross and systematic violation of human rights which has been in place for many years and still continues';

2.Notes the Special Rapporteur states these violations 'may entail categories of crimes against humanity or war crimes under the terms of the statute of the International Criminal Court' and recommends that 'UN institutions may consider the possibility to establish a commission of inquiry with a specific fact finding mandate to address the question of international crimes';

3.Notes on 9 March 2010 the Burmese regime announced the election laws for the forthcoming election based on the 2008 constitution that excludes political activists who have been arrested, Buddhist monks and nuns and public servants from standing for election, prevents the National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, and winners of the country’s last election, from registering if Aung San Suu Kyi remains a party member, and annuls the results of the 1990 election which saw the NLD win more than 80 per cent of the vote; and

5.Welcomes the Australian government’s indication that it would support investigating possible options for a United Nations commission of inquiry, and—

(a)articulates its support for human rights and democracy in Burma;

(b)calls for the release of each of the 2,100 political prisoners in Burma;

(c)condemns the 2008 constitution as anti-democratic; and

(d)supports the call for all governments to refuse to accept the results of the Burmese elections scheduled to be held later this year unless all political prisoners are unconditionally released and a new democratic constitution is introduced that would permit the full participation of all political parties and individuals and would respect the will of the Burmese people.

It is timely that I rise today to speak on this motion because, of course, almost 22 years ago, on 8 August, more than 3,000 Burmese students, activists and monks were murdered by the military regime in scenes of unprecedented violence and brutality. On that day on which the world remembers the innocent Burmese murdered by the military in the uprising, now of course over two decades ago, it is time that Australian governments increased pressure on the regime by expelling these students and freezing all Australian bank accounts associated with the regime. Australia should not give comfort to those who have grown wealthy by stealing from their own country, and at least three children of senior military figures of that regime are, in fact, reported to be living in Australia.

In the latter part of this decade, with the Saffron revolution, on the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988, decades of incompetent, corrupt and repressive dictatorship drove a famously tolerant and peaceful Burmese people onto the streets. The unprovoked attacks on these demonstrators were horrific. The military responded with systematic bashings, arbitrary arrests and torture and, of course, widespread murder.

In late September 2007, hundreds of thousands of monks, nuns, activists and ordinary citizens turned out in a peaceful protest against the regime on the streets of Rangoon and many other cities and towns throughout Burma. Of these, at least 31 protesters were killed and 3,000 arrested, including 18 elected MPs and many monks and nuns. Monasteries were invaded and ransacked and monks were beaten and tortured. The world must not turn its back on the plight of these Burmese.

The events of 22 years ago not only demonstrate the viciousness of the military in their determination to maintain a vice-like grip on power and to pillage their country regardless of all human cost but also show the courage of the people of Burma and their commitment to restoring democracy after so many decades of dictatorship. We have now seen the 20th anniversary of the last Burmese election pass. This, of course, was won in a landslide by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. The MPs elected in 1990 have never been allowed to take their seats, and the repression and abuse of human rights has continued unabated since then. New elections, of course, are scheduled to be held this year under an anti-democratic constitution that was rammed through in 2008. The military and their collaborators are guaranteed to maintain control no matter which party has the support of the Burmese people.

In 1988 Australia, disgracefully, was the first country to recognise the repressive military dictatorship that emerged from the chaos of this uprising. I am now pleased to see that the tides have turned in this country. Twenty-two years later—it is well past time, of course—we have undone the mistake of our previous leaders and we have given assistance to the Burmese people struggling to be free.

In recent years, the European Union and the USA have also rejected the elections, and the Rudd government has won rare praise from Burma campaigners for a move in Geneva that could lead to an international legal case against Burma's military junta for crimes against its people. This, of course, came after a discussion in the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva about the report of their Special Rapporteur Tomás Quintana. That report called for an investigation into Burma's military for human rights crimes and war crimes against civilians, and it was angrily rejected by the Burmese government as unobjective and politically motivated.

At the Geneva meeting, I am proud to say that Australia endorsed an investigation into ways that a United Nations commission of inquiry might be held. In its response to the Special Rapporteur's report, Australia, through the diplomatic language, of course, was robust. Australia's representative in Geneva is quoted as saying that Australia would support investigating possible options for a United Nations commission of inquiry. Tough talk indeed for the United Nations.

The Greens have seen this as the first steps towards an international criminal court prosecution of the Burmese regime and judiciary, and it is something that the Australian government has previously strongly resisted but we very much welcome. Further evidence that Australia is looking to increase pressure on Burma came during a Senate debate welcoming the government's initiative, which passed unanimously without requiring a vote.

On top of that, Australia formally made clear its dismay at the five electoral laws unveiled recently by Burmese authorities. In fact, Australia's foreign minister, Stephen Smith, made a detailed statement to the Australian parliament on that issue, prefacing his remarks by saying Australia had joined the international community in suspending judgment on whether Burma's plans for elections this year, the first in 20 years, signalled a genuine intention to return to democracy.

In recent times, the Burmese authorities published five electoral laws which will govern the conduct of the election and, whilst in some respect it is not surprising, I very much doubt that there will be an appropriately conducted election on the basis of the publication of these electoral laws.

With its diplomatic shift in Geneva, Australia has put more pressure on Burma, though campaigners are still hoping Canberra can be convinced to widen those sanctions. The New South Wales parliament has also since then moved a similar motion in support of free and fair elections to be held in Burma, and around the country similar motions such as this are being moved in different parliaments and, of course, across the world.

It is time to get tough on the enemies of democracy and, in this case, Burmese democracy. The spirit and courage of the people of Burma and their commitment to restoring democracy after over 56 years of dictatorship remains strong, and so should we. With the international community's help and the help of parliaments such as ours, Burma can once again be free, and the South Australian parliament can play some part in achieving that. We can show that the world is watching.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. B.V. Finnigan.

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