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Hill urges further Australian and international action on Burma

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Thursday, December 3 112/92


The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Robert Hill, today urged Australia and the international community to consider immediate measures to encourage a return to democracy and an end to human rights abuses in Burma.

He made his comments in a speech prepared for a conference on

Burma at Griffith University in Bri s b a n e . The speech, entitled "Burma: The Coalition's Perspective", was delivered by the Liberal Member for Moncrieff, Mrs Kathy Sullivan.

Senator Hill said the Coalition remained deeply concerned about appalling human rights abuses in Burma, and there could be no doubt the situation in the country required immediate attention.

He said Amnesty International had said in a recent report that human rights were being "grossly and persistently violated" throughout Burma, and that the victims came from every section of society and every ethnic and religious group.

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which came to power in 1988 and held elections in 1990, had outlawed all but seven of the 233 parties which contested the elections.

Senator Hill said that despite Burma's parlous economic state, the country had reportedly spent at least $600 million on arms in the past two years.

Burma was believed to be the world's largest heroin exporter, and there was speculation that some of the drug money was being used b y the Burmese regime to fund arms purchases.

Senator Hill said the Federal Opposition believed that further measures must be taken to pressure the SLORC towards democracy and the cessation of human rights a b u s e s .

The Coalition believed that if efforts by the United Nations

General Assembly and the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) w ere unsuccessful by early next year, the issue of Burma should become the subject of UN Security Council deliberation.

He said an international arms embargo, which could be applied by the Security Council, would have a considerable effect on Burma.


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"The Coalition believes that the international community must explore all measures to place pressure on Burma,H Senator Hill said.

"The Coalition also believes that the Australian Government has been slow in its reactions to Burma.

"It was slow in stopping Australia's aid to Burma, it was sloppy in implementing the arms embargo, and it has been hesitant in

regional and international forums.

"The Australian Government has criticised private sector trade with Burma, but has kept open the Austrade office in R a n g o o n .

"The Federal Opposition believes that the Australian Government needs to make a greater effort to raise regional and wider

international awareness of what is happening in Burma."


Enquiries* Senator Hill or Mark Batistich on (06) 277 3170










The Federal Opposition remains deeply concerned about the appalling human rights situation in Burma. We have consistently protested the fact that the democratically elected representatives of the Burmese people have not been allowed to assume power. We have protested the persecution of these representatives and their supporters for the peaceful expression of their views. We have protested the total lack of civil rights in Burma. And we have protested the continuing abuses conducted against Burma's ethnic minorities.

There can be no doubt that the situation in Burma requires immediate attention. On virtually every front there is an urgent need for reform: with respect to political instability and human rights abuses, refugees, the consequences of disastrous economic mismanagement, narcotics, and Burma's contribution to regional instability.

Any one of these areas would be a major problem in itself. Yet put together we see in Burma one of the most sustained and systematic examples of repression anywhere in the world. Despite some welcome measures of liberalisation by the ruling regime in the past few months, overall improvements have been minimal.

If we examine human rights first, the seriousness and extent of the abuses are shocking. Amnesty International has released six substantial reports on Burma in just over one year. The latest report (October 1992) is aptly entitled "No law at all". It commences with the lines:

"Human rights are grossly and persistently violated throughout (Burma). The victims come from every section o f society, and every ethnic and religious group!'.

Amnesty has based its reports on thousands of testimonies and eyewitness accounts of abuses. Similar reports have been issued in the last few months by Asia Watch and the Australian Council of Churches. To my office, I am sent large volumes of information detailing human rights abuses against many individuals and groups. These human rights abuses take virtually every form th at one can imagine.

Many of the abuses are connected with suppressing political dissent. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) came to power in 1988. In May 1990, 233 political parties contested the elections. Twenty seven of these parties had candidates who won seats. Yet according to Amnesty, currently, only seven remain

legal political parties - all the rest have been outlawed.

Many of the elected representatives are in detention, some have died in detention. Aung San Suu Kyi - who so deservingly was awarded the 1991 Nobel peace prize - has been in detention for over three years. Amnesty has documented 1500 named

political prisoners, which may only represent a small proportion of the total.

There is no right to a fair trial. Conditions in prisons are appalling. There are documented reports of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment.


The suppression of dissent makes it impossible for political parties to operate. Universities and schools are closed arbitrarily and have been closed for most of the time since 1988. Universities have recently been permitted to reopen, yet controls over students and teachers remain extensive.

Religious persecution is increasing. Burma's people are predominantly Buddhist, yet the religious crackdown is mainly directed against Buddhist clergy. It was only on Monday that we received reports that a senior Buddhist monk - U Zaw-Tika - died in detention.

There are also gross human rights violations against Burma's ethnic minorities. Over 30% of Burma's population is comprised of minority ethnic and religious groups. We are now receiving reports of rape, pillage and murder by the SLORC armed forces in connection with virtually all the ethnic minorities. Villagers are forced to become porters or even human minesweepers in the SLORC's attempts to crush resistance. In connection with this, there are reports of executions and disappearances, and the SLORC is conducting forced relocations of large numbers of people in the ethnic minority parts of the countiy.

This is only a very brief outline of the many pages of reports of human rights abuses in Burma. But it serves to sketch a picture of a horrific and sustained abuse of power.

These actions have also resulted in a significant regional refugee problem. Earlier this year we saw the exodus of the ethnic Muslim Rohingyas from persecution in Burma, to become refugees in poverty-stricken Bangladesh. There are now estimated to be 265 000 Rohingya refugees living in camps on the border.

Despite negotiations between the Burma and Bangladesh governments, along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), very few of these refugees have returned. Burma has refused to allow UNHCR supervision of their return. As a result, Bangladesh has a huge and unstable refugee problem, with which it is ill-equipped to cope. Persecution of this Muslim minority is continuing in Burma and refugees are still finding their way into the camps.

Refugees are also present on the Chinese side of the Burmese border - a reported 30 000 people, primarily Kachin, have been there for the last five years. Earlier this year 1500 refugees fled to India to escape heavy fighting, to join an estimated 35 000 already there. In Thailand there are another 70 000 Karen refugees. Within Burma itself there are a large number of internally displaced people. There are estimated to be 250 000 to 300 000 internally displaced Karens alone.

This not only presents the countries concerned and the international community with much human misery and suffering, but represents a significant source of friction between Burma and its neighbours.

Burma has been isolated for many years. The results of this isolation are largely seen in Burma's poor economic performance. Burma has Least Developed Countiy


status with GDP per capita now at a very low US$230. Food supplies are short despite fertile conditions in Burma being ideal for food crops. The cost of rice, for instance, is reported to have doubled in the last year. Inflation is running at 60% and Burma is unable to service its foreign debt. Yet Burma's abundant natural resources - oil, gas, precious gems, timber and fisheries reserves - remain virtually untapped.

The parlous state of Burma's economy is reflected in the health of Burma's people. Ten percent of children under the age of three suffer severe malnutrition. The infant mortality rate is ten percent per annum.

Yet in contrast to these statistics, Burma has still managed to spend a reported US$600 million, and possibly more, on arms purchases in the last two years. The majority of these arms have been acquired from China, but purchases are reported from Poland and the former Yugoslavia as well.

Regional concern is growing regarding the arms build up which includes attack helicopters, fighter warplanes, naval patrol boats, heavy artillery, tanks and anti­ aircraft guns. These arms purchases are accompanied by a build up of the armed forces to 300 000 troops.

Burma occupies a strategic position between China and India, and also shares borders with Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. The recent refugee flows and Burma's attempts to control its insurgents have resulted in minor clashes between its armed forces and those of Thailand and Bangladesh. Burma has shown little respect for the territorial integrity of its neighbours in its attempts to crush the ethnic insurgencies. There remains considerable potential for clashes between Burma and its neighbours which contributes to wider instability in the region.

In addition, the Coalition is very concerned by the involvement of Burma in the international narcotics trade. The United States Drug Enforcement Agency considers Burma to be the world's largest heroin exporter. Burma is believed to account for sixty percent of the world's supply, with the 1991 harvest reported to be double that of three years previously. Burma is possibly the most important heroin refining centre in South Blast Asia. And the number of heroin addicts within Burma is rapidly increasing.

There is speculation that some of the drug money is being used by the Burmese regime to fund arms purchases. What is clear is that drug production on this scale m ust require either active or passive cooperation by the authorities. There is, therefore, an urgent need to bring Burma within international measures to combat the drug trade. Yet if there is official sanction of these activities, then the task ahead is impossible.

It is obvious by this brief outline that there is need for urgent regional and international action to pressure Burma to initiate reform.

The Federal Opposition has repeatedly called on the SLORC to hand over power to


the elected representatives of the Burmese people. A democratically elected government, together with the assistance of the international community which the achievement of democracy would bring, could rapidly move to overcome Burma's problems.

There are a few hopeful signs. We note that the SLORC appears to be making some progress towards convening a national convention, which is supposed to outline the principles for a new constitution. The SLORC has announced th at this will be convened by 10 January 1993 - which will be almost three years since democratic elections were held. Yet most of the democratically elected representatives of 1990 will not participate in this process. Instead the SLORC has controlled the selection of those who will be part of the convention.

The process of drafting the constitution does not have any time limits. There are also no guarantees of elections after a constitution has been agreed to. In addition, the SLORC has declared that the new constitution must ensure the "participation o f the armed forces in the leading role o f national politics o f Idle state in the future?.

This process does not give us great confidence given th at political parties are disbanded and so many elected representatives are in detention, outlawed or, in some cases, dead.

The SLORC has also released about 500 political prisoners since April. Yet many more remain in detention. The SLORC has announced the lifting of some aspects of martial law, cessation of the use of military tribunals in civilian trials, and the lifting of the curfew. We welcome these moves but there is still more which needs to be done. Earlier this year, the SLORC also announced a ceasefire in relation to its war against the Karen insurgents. However, information suggests that attacks are continuing.

On the other side of the equation, we commend the Burmese opposition groups for their dedication in publicising the situation in Burma and taking their case to the international community. In this respect, we were pleased to note the Manerplaw agreement between Burma's opposition groups, including groups representing the ethnic minorities, to work together to achieve democracy and human rights.

The Federal Opposition believes th at further measures must be taken to pressure the SLORC towards democracy and the cessation of human rights abuses. This can be achieved through international, regional and unilateral action.

With respect to international measures, we supported the action of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in February this year. By passing a consensus resolution condemning the SLORC and its human rights abuses, appointing a special rapporteur, and moving the debate into its public sessions, the UNCHR signalled its increased attention to Burma. Together, these are amongst the strongest measures the UNCHR can take with respect to any m atter which is before it.



The UNCHR resolution was considerably stronger than the 1991 General Assembly resolution. The UNCHR called on the Government of Burma to speed up the transition to democracy, respect human rights, remove restrictions on political prisoners and political parties, and reopen the universities. To date, only the last of these has been implemented by the Burmese authorities.

The resolution also required the special rapporteur to report to the 1992 General Assembly and then to the next session of the UNCHR in 1993 with respect to progress on improving human rights, the transfer of power to democratically elected representatives, and the drafting of a new constitution.

In this respect, the first public UN report on Burma, compiled by the special rapporteur Professor Yozo Yokota, was released last week. It made clear that there is a great deal of evidence that the military government is conducting widespread abuses of human rights. It was announced that Professor Yokota is to visit Burma from 7-15 December in an attempt to meet with detained political leaders and assess the human rights and refugee situation.

The report is a precursor to the General Assembly resolution on Burma which is expected to take place next week. It is understood that this will be stronger and more comprehensive than the 1991 General Assembly resolution. It is expected to draw attention for the first time to the widespread abuse of the ethnic minorities.

However, as this is to be a consensus resolution, the strength of its

recommendations will be determined by the more reluctant of Burma's critics. The Coalition believes that a strong resolution is needed in order to send a clear signal to the SLORC. It needs to unequivocally condemn human rights abuses and place pressure on the SLORC for an immediate move to democracy.

The SLORC, in its defence at the UN, has pointed to its recent actions - such as releasing political prisoners, allowing visits by Aung San Suu Kyi's family and moves towards a national convention - which have resulted in a number of changes in Burma.

Despite these actions, the evidence is th a t comprehensive human rights abuses are continuing. This means that stronger international measures need to be considered by the world community. Such measures would only work if states in the Asia- Pacific region give support.

The Coalition believes that if the General Assembly and the UNCHR efforts are unsuccessful by the time the Commission next meets in early 1993, the issue of Burma should become the subject of UN Security Council deliberation. At present, the Security Council is acting with respect to Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. In both these instances, the chronic internal problems have necessitated such an approach. The principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of states must be questioned when considering such examples of human suffering and miseiy. From this perspective, it would be valid for the Security Council to also focus on Burma.



The Coalition believes that one action which would have considerable effect is an international arms embargo. Such an embargo would need to be applied by the Security Council. There is already an arms embargo on Burma by Australia, the United States and the European Community.

In order for this to be imposed by the Security Council and for it to work, China would have to give its support. China is Burma's main supplier of weapons and military training and the Coalition would urge China to cease this support. China claims that its position on Burma is based on non-interference in Burma's internal affairs. However, the sale of arms not only facilitates Burma's human rights abuses, but it also poses a danger to regional stability which must be of concern to China.

An international aid embargo on Burma could also be considered by the Security Council. As part of the UN Security Council measures against Iraq for instance, bilateral aid was stopped, and this may prove to be a useful precedent in considering the most effective course of action against Burma.

Economic sanctions have been suggested as a further step which could be taken against Burma. Although the United Nations resolutions are becoming stronger, they have a long way to go before embracing sanctions. However, in 1991, the United States unilaterally imposed limited economic sanctions against Burma by not renewing a bilateral textile agreement which affected 40% of Burma's exports to the US.

Sanctions would only be an effective form of pressure if Burma's main economic partners participated: that is, China and the ASEAN states. Australia was interested in canvassing support for economic sanctions but was dissuaded by ASEAN.

The ASEAN states have pursued a path of "constructive engagement' with the SLORC which they believe will encourage reform. Whilst Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei protested at the SLORC's persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas, ASEAN has been reluctant to take further action. Burma was one of the main issues raised by

dialogue partners at the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference in July of this year. Yet ASEIAN refused to discuss the suggestions of stronger action against Burma. Indeed, ASEIAN has pointed to the recent concessions made by the SLORC. Because of these improvements - however small - there is unlikely to be regional support for

sanctions at this stage. And for sanctions to have any effect they must have this support.

The Coalition believes that the international community must explore all measures to place pressure on Burma. We would hope to see substantial improvements in Burma's transition to democracy and the human rights situation by the next session o f the UN Commission on Human Rights, which is early in 1993.

The Coalition also believes th at the Australian Government has been slow in its reactions to Burma. It was slow in stopping Australia’s aid to Burma, it was sloppy in implementing the arms embargo, and it has been hesitant in regional and



international forums.

The Australian Government has criticised private sector trade with Burma, but has kept open the AUSTRADE office in Rangoon. It seems amazing that to apply political pressure the Government ceased facilitating trade with South Africa, but yet has kept open the AUSTRADE office in Burma. Closing the AUSTRADE office

would be considered by the Coalition if the situation does not improve by early next year.

The Federal Opposition believes that the Australian Government needs to make a greater effort to raise regional and wider international awareness of what is happening in Burma. Although we recognise that for some countries of our Asia- Pacific region, human rights are associated with the right to development, Burma is showing no attempt at development. Instead it is ignoring its economic potential, engaging in sustained and indiscriminate abuses of human rights, creating an

enormous refugee problem of significance for the region, and its arms buildup will inevitably affect regional stability.

Yet effort also needs to be made to convince the authorities in Burma of the advantages of a democratic state. Burma is a nation rich in natural and human resources which could be harnessed to make Burma an economically secure nation with a sound standard of living. The problems of internal instability could be overcome with adherence to internationally recognised standards of human rights. A democratic Burma would be able to participate in our dynamic and increasingly

important Asia-Pacific region and gain for itself those advantages which result from growth and development.

The Federal Opposition will both continue to press for change in Burma and to take steps to encourage such change. We believe that the people of Burma have suffered for too long and it is time that peace, democracy and human rights became an inalienable part of their lives.