As far as Australia’s troubled neighbours go, it doesn’t get much more fraught than Myanmar. The nation, formerly known as Burma, is in the midst of a very difficult transition from half a century of military dictatorship to some form of democracy.
Internal armed conflict continues apace, with a major self-inflicted refugee crisis on its border. The economy is struggling, poverty is rife, and the country continues to be one of the world’s largest producers of narcotics.
The November 2015 election appeared to provide a bridge to transition, bringing Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) a sweeping victory with 80% of the vote — enough to secure leadership despite a system rigged in favour of the military. But hopes have been somewhat dashed as it finally dawned on the rest of the world that the military’s handwritten 2008 constitution — Myanmar’s third since its 1948 independence — had cemented in place a power-sharing arrangement between the elected civilian government and the military.
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In January this year, less than two years out from the next election, Suu Kyi finally fulfilled a key election promises and began the process of trying to change the constitution. The aim is to wind back the military’s role as well as removing a section of the constitution designed to prevent Suu Kyi herself becoming president. (Suu Kyi is currently state counselor, a new role created by parliament, akin to a prime minister, that allows her effective control of the civilian government.)
The committee is due to report back to parliament this week, but much remains unclear — including how quickly that report will be made public. Constitutional change is a particularly thorny problem for the NLD as the military retains a veto over changes. In making this play, many observers sense the beginning of a re-election pitch.
Along with the rest of the Western world, most Australians who cared had largely unrealistic hopes for what Suu Kyi could achieve; authoritarian countries tend to take time to morph into well-functioning democracies. With the military still in firm control of security, the civil war in the northern state of Kachin has continued, hampering a national peace process. The horrifying exodus of more than 700,000 ethnic Muslim Rohingyas from the state of Rakhine into Bangladesh has seen Suu Kyi’s once saintly image all but destroyed.
But this should be no reason for Myanmar’s friends, and supporters of democratic societies in general, to turn their backs on the country. Quite the opposite.
Since 2012, Australia’s Coalition government has been embarrassingly disengaged from Myanmar. Apparently sending Australian troops to die in far-off countries like Iraq and Afghanistan — and who knows, maybe Iran — and spending all amount of blood and treasure for “democratisation” is a better use of Australian public diplomacy than helping a neighbour who is trying, albeit with huge difficulty, to do it themselves.
Prior to this, Australia had a solid record of public support for the democratisation in Myanmar. Kevin Rudd visited the country as both prime minister and foreign minister, as did his successor in the second role Bob Carr. Critics had a point in noting that there was doubtless an element of schmoozing involved, with both men — neither of whom have ever hidden their egos — securing photos with the beloved Nobel Prize winner. But that was then.
Come the Abbott and Turnbull governments, it seemed that for Australia (at least publicly) Myanmar had fallen off the map. The Coalition’s focus on so-called “economic diplomacy” would appear to sideline poor and hard-to-invest-in nations like Myanmar.
Before December last year there had only be two visits by any Australian minister to Myanmar on the Coalition’s watch — both by one-time junior foreign affairs minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
This public neglect is all the more curious given Australia’s continuing strong commitment to providing aid to one of Asia’s poorest nations. We send money ($84 million in 2019-2020), but offer little in the way of regional leadership in the form of visits from senior leaders and continuing statements of support.
Certainly there are some sensitivities around “telling” former colonial nations what they need to do, but measured support would be more welcomed than shunned. Australia, too, like other nations, must accept the reality that the military has a leadership role in the country.
The unofficial official line from Canberra is that constitutional change is an internal political matter. Yet Australia is happy to invade other countries when it suits. This is, at best, wildly inconsistent. The rise of Chinese influence, which Australia has publicly stated it wants to balance, is also a huge issue in Southeast Asia’s poorer countries such as Myanmar as well as Cambodia and Laos.
It was heartening to see Bishop’s successor as foreign minister, Marise Payne, visit Myanmar in December 2018; she visited northern Rakhine to see how Australian aid was being spent. Indeed, Payne has shown she is more interested in the human rights end of diplomacy than Bishop, critiquing China’s gulags in north-western Xinjiang.
Hopefully this signalled a new phase of Australian engagement with Myanmar and its efforts to create a more democratic society for the country’s put-upon people — and some signs that it will be followed up would be welcome. Public statements about the importance of peace and real democracy that constitutional reforms represent would be a good place to start.