This developing democracy deserves our attention
Today the world’s most powerful nation goes to the polls in a media-saturated celebration of democracy.
Meanwhile 60 million people in our region will wake up to another day of uncertainty, as their nation continues its slow emergence from the shadows of repression and isolation.
Burma is a long way from front page news. Apart from the stoic resistance of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi through years of house arrest, little has been heard in Australia about the nation’s struggle.
While other South East Asian nations are part of the tourist trail, Burma remains a mystery to most of us.
I have recently returned from my first visit to Burma as part of an Australian trade and labour delegation, led by Federal minister Bill Shorten.
To be able to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and see her optimism for the future was an incredible experience.
It is clear that the country is at a turning point in its history and needs the help of the world more than ever.
On my first day there, I asked a taxi driver in Yangon (Rangoon) if anything was different for him. He said the only thing that had changed was “that there’s no fear here anymore”.
I spoke with a union activist - a fabulous and courageous woman who told us all the problems the union movement is facing but also said that now when she holds a union meeting the police still come and take notes but no longer arrest her. She was pleased about that.
Up until a few years ago Burma was, apart from North Korea, the most repressive regime in our region. Its military rulers cut the country off from the rest of the world and kept its people in poverty and ignorance.
The 2010 elections were the first since 1962, when the military took over. They were not fully democratic, with restrictions on who could stand, however they have delivered a civilian government that is trying to introduce democracy.
With the military taking a back seat, the new government has made some tentative reforms. It has released thousands of political prisoners, relaxed media censorship, passed improved labour laws which allow unions to operate, and established a National Human Rights Commission.
The new government is desperate to get some quick wins to cement the favour of the people and the sceptics, but Aung Sang Suu Kyi told us they should slow down to make sure they get it right and ensure this opportunity is not lost.
At the moment it is like the whole country is holding its breath. The Burmese people are hopeful but wary. A decade ago the military regime liberalised, only to quickly reverse course, and the thought that this could happen again hangs over the country.
Persisting ethnic violence in several areas of the country add to this uncertainty, particularly when it appears the military is involved.
The new government struggles with concepts of transparency and accountability and many worry about its lack of consultation or communication with its people and the fledging parliament.
Graft in the form of “tea money” and corruption are, we were told, still inherent and there is a lack of the civil institutions we take for granted in Australia.
I know that opinion is divided on how we handle regimes like Burma’s, where the military junta is slowly loosening its grip on the nation.
We need to tread a fine balance that rewards them for the progress they have made, while letting them know that slipping backwards, or condoning ethnic violence, is not acceptable.
One thing that heartened me was the admission of many people that Burma must change.
It was amazing to hear the leaders of the country tell us they were wrong and needed to change. To hear them say that they had run the country on fear and that being locked out by sanctions held them back economically was extraordinary.
They told us the people need jobs and a better standard of living and that democracy and trade are necessary to do this. They acknowledge they can’t create the institutions and infrastructure to do this themselves and are asking for the world’s help.
Imagine having to build a banking system, a stock exchange, a communications network, an independent judiciary all from scratch, in a country marred by poverty and ethnic tensions.
Add to this the need to establish free trade unions in a labour market that has little understanding of rights, and where child labour and forced labour are still used in some of the regions.
Burma is also beginning to open up its economy and access to its substantial reserves of oil and gas.
Corporations are chafing at the bit to get in and take advantage of the abundantly rich resources and cheap labour.
The question is how will Burma ensure that the wealth generated benefits the entire country, not the elites that have kept the country in poverty?
There is a thin line between development and exploitation and companies who do business in Burma have a responsibility to work with the government to deliver a benefit to the Burmese people, not just their leaders.
Ms Suu Kyi asked the Australian delegation to impress upon Australian corporations the need to insist upon high standards of accountability, transparency and fairness when negotiating with the government to enter the Burmese market.
The ACTU is arguing for AusAID to prepare responsible investment guidelines for Australian businesses going into Myanmar, and for their involvement to be properly monitored by the Australian Government.
The damage done by isolation and repression will take decades to undo, and Burma will need international help for a long time to come.
Burma’s future is still in the balance.
Is the military truly prepared to relinquish control over Burmese society, and will it face up to the abuses it has committed in the past?
Can the country accommodate its minorities and build a society which all ethnic groups feel part of?
We need to let the Burmese Government know what the international community expects. The role of sanctions in demonstrating the views of the international community has been important.
The next general election is to be held in 2015, it needs to be more democratic than the 2010 election.
Some in western countries have become cynical about democracy and political processes and about half of all Americans won’t even exercise their right to vote tomorrow.
However, visiting Burma is a reminder that in many countries the dream of being able to walk into a polling booth and vote without fear is still one for which people are willing to endure torture, house arrest, and even death.
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