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Monday, 22 November 2010
Page: 3390

Mr FRYDENBERG (8:25 PM) —I rise today to speak in favour of the motion moved by the member for Page. Importantly, it focuses our attention at this time on the release from house arrest of a modern-day hero, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwavering commitment to a democratic future for her people and her inner strength in the face of decades of repression have won respect the world over. She is today’s most conspicuous flag-bearer for Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of seeking political change through peaceful resistance. It was Gandhi who said:

Nonviolence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed.

It has been no different for Aung San Suu Kyi. While the world rejoices in Suu Kyi’s release, it is but an incremental step on a long path to real and lasting change in Burma. How Australia and the international community responds to these recent developments will be critical. Before outlining in more detail what I consider are some of the key factors at play, it is worth recounting the life of this remarkable woman. Her family history and personal journey to this point provide an important context in which to understand her indomitable determination and resolve. Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945 to Aung San, commander of the Burma Independence Army, and Khin Kyi, the senior nurse of Rangoon General Hospital. Two years later, her father was assassinated, leaving her mother to become a senior public figure and later Burmese ambassador to India. Suu Kyi was educated in New Delhi and later Oxford University where she met her future husband Michael Aris. In 1965, she moved to New York first to study and then to work at the United Nations. In 1972, she married Michael Aris and travelled with him to the kingdom of Bhutan, where he was a tutor to the royal family and she worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It was not until 1988 that Suu Kyi returned on a more permanent basis back to Burma to provide palliative care to her sick mother in Rangoon. In that year the resignation of the military leader of Burma, General Ne Win, sparked mass protests and Suu Kyi called publicly for multiparty elections. The National League for Democracy, the NLD, was formed that year and Suu Kyi took on the role of General Secretary. As her popularity rapidly grew, the military placed her under house arrest on 20 July 1989.

Despite the restrictions placed on her, the NLD won the 1990 elections with 82 per cent of the parliament’s seats, but all to no avail. The military dictatorship denied any form of democratic government and continued the brutal suppression of Suu Kyi’s human rights. In 1991, Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize but understandably rejected the military offer of free passage to receive the award and visit her family abroad knowing that she would never be allowed home.

Despite all that she has suffered, including spending 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest, she remains defiant and optimistic. Even when her husband, Michael Aris, was dying of prostate cancer in 1999 and was denied permission by the Burmese government to visit her one final time, she would not be broken. We must accept this is a woman who knows her people, who knows how the international political system operates and has faith in the path that she has chosen. We in the international community therefore owe it to her and her people to do all that we can to bring pressure to bear on Rangoon’s brutal military dictatorship. In her words, ‘Please use your liberty to promote ours.’ It is a plea we cannot ignore.

Australia’s response must be multifaceted and combine a series of diplomatic, economic and assistance based approaches. It must be a balanced approach and not one based solely on isolating the regime. First, we are right to place travel restrictions and financial sanctions against 453 of Burma’s leadership class. There must be a price to pay. Second, we must continue our sanctions on defence exports to Burma and encourage our international partners to adopt a similar approach. Third, a substantial aid program to Burma is important as nearly one-third of the nearly 60 million Burmese live in abject poverty. The civilian population also suffer greatly from a high incidence of HIV-AIDS and poor levels of community health and disease prevention. Problems on the ground have been compounded by natural disasters, including devastating cyclones and floods. Fourth, we must continue to expose the human rights abuses that are carried out on a large scale in Burma. As I wrote back in 2007 in an article in the Age, in Burma thousands of children are kidnapped to become child soldiers, and torture and sex slavery are used as political weapons. Despite knowledge of these tragedies, a number of countries in our region seek to preserve their economic and strategic relationships, most prominently in the energy sector as Burma has the world’s 10th largest gas reserves. These countries protect their economic and strategic relationships ahead of the more important commitment to protecting and upholding universal human rights. In this vein we must continue to call for the immediate release of the over 2,000 political prisoners held in Burma.

Fifth and finally, we must combine these strategies with a policy of engagement with the Burmese hierarchy. Under President Obama the United States have moved their approach to a more active policy of engagement. They found that isolation alone did not get the desired results. This must be welcome, particularly the visit earlier this year to Rangoon by US Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. We need to work with the United States, Japan, India, Korea and our partners in ASEAN to bring about change at the top in Burma. Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, SBY, has an important role to play in this regard. As a former general, as a person who knows Burma well and as the leader of ASEAN’s most powerful member, he is strategically placed to take a leadership role. Australia has a very good relationship with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Indonesia. We should use our good offices with the president and his country to identify appropriate opportunities to partner with them in this important mission.

The case for change in Burma is more pressing than ever. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release has given the case fresh impetus. Australia, as an important player in the region and committed as we are to protecting human rights, cannot stand idly by. I therefore support the motion and support Australia playing an ever-increasing important role in bringing democratic change to Burma and protecting its people’s human rights.