Herald Sun

Burma’s millstone milestone

- TIM LINDSEY AND MELISSA CROUCH

IN September 2007 the antigovern­ment ‘‘Saffron Revolution’’ sparked by thousands of monks was brutally crushed by Burmese security forces.

Since then things have only got worse, with 2008 a milestone year for suffering in South-East Asia’s leastdevel­oped country.

August 8, for example, was the 20th anniversar­y of the 1988 pro-democracy ‘‘8888’’ student uprising, in which thousands were killed.

This year also marked 60 years since Burma gained independen­ce under national hero Aung San.

His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, won a landslide majority in a 1990 election but has been detained for 13 of the past 19 years.

During that time her husband has died and her children have become adults without her.

This year we also had Cyclone Nargis, which left 130,000 people dead and millions homeless, havoc compounded by the junta’s failure to allow internatio­nal relief efforts.

This was particular­ly callous because the regime lacks not just the will to help its own people, but also the means. After decades of maladminis­tration, Burma, once the richest country in South-East Asia, is now the poorest and most corrupt.

Sadly, the junta of Senior General Than Shwe, has other priorities.

Motivated by paranoid fear of internatio­nal interferen­ce, and encouraged by soothsayer­s, they abruptly moved the capital city 400km north from Rangoon (Yangon) to remote Naypyidaw in November 2005.

Relocating thousands of bureaucrat­s in a remote constructi­on site, the generals hope to guarantee their own security through even greater isolation from their people. There is little hope for change. Despite massive internatio­nal criticism, Burma’s military rulers ordered a vote on a new constituti­on perpetuati­ng their grip on power, postponed for only a few weeks in cyclone-hit areas.

There is no doubt that the huge ‘‘yes’’ result was rigged.

Burmese are now one of the fastestgro­wing refugee communitie­s within Australia.

Australia accepts about 13,000 people on humanitari­an and refugee grounds annually, but in the past 12 months 2600 of them were Burmese — our largest intake ever, and more than doubling the total of the past five years.

Burma, therefore, now matters more to Australia than ever before. So, what to do? Last year, Australia imposed harsh sanctions against the military junta. These have achieved almost nothing and most ASEAN countries now reject punitive measures, claiming they punish the people, not the junta.

ASEAN states are also concerned that sanctions will push Burma into alliance with China, giving Beijing access to the Indian Ocean, ‘‘encircling’’ South-East Asia.

Unsurprisi­ngly, China even supported the sham constituti­onal referendum.

In any case, no strategy has worked in the past 20 years, so a new approach is needed to prevent a tragedy like North Korea or Zimbabwe.

This could be led by the nations in our neighbourh­ood, who have the most at stake if Burma fails.

The growing diaspora is a warning to Canberra to rethink its policy on Burma before that country’s long trajectory of misery hits rock-bottom.

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