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A delicate dance with Burma's generals

Meredith Burgmann
The Sydney Morning Herald 
December 20, 2012

'There's even a tomboy,'' chortled the elderly female Human Rights Commissioner in Burma. She was describing the new female staff the commission was about to hire. It did not need translation for our visiting delegation to understand this new staff member was a lesbian. 

It was one of the few specific moments during my visit to Burma last week that convinced me that change in this country is genuine. 

Our "women leaders" group visited Burma led by the hard-working federal member for Page, Janelle Saffin. The group included Kirsty Sword Gusmao, the wife of the East Timorese Prime Minister, and women heads of Australian NGOs. We had remarkable access to Burmese civil society but also to the generals, including Aung Min, the government's peace negotiator. 

From the outset, the question was: "Is this process of liberalisation real and is it irreversible?" The answer is a cautious ''yes'' and an even more cautious ''maybe''. After nine days filled with meetings, we left pretty sure it was time to do business with the generals. 

The most significant event for me was the celebration of International Human Rights Day where Aung San Suu Kyi and Aung Min spoke. Tellingly, the most interesting speech was that of the minister. 

Suu Kyi is indeed charismatic and charming. It is easy to view her as a courageous prisoner or an international political superstar but she is more than that. She is a political leader in a difficult, fragile dance with the generals. Depending on how she handles this dance, Burma will emerge as a fledgling democracy or revert to brutal authoritarianism. 

Aung Min, who is the Minister for the President's Office, said: "I would not have believed it if you told me last year that I will be participating in this event side by side with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi." 

He listed the reforms of the generals, including the implementation of freedom of assembly laws; the release of 29,000 prisoners including 651 political prisoners, and the abolition of press censorship. He noted: "At every peace meeting, I look out at a sea of reporters and admire their determination to build transparency and share information with the general public.'' 

Suu Kyi spoke about the importance of not just consulting but of listening: "Our people are weak at achieving consensus through listening … we must listen to, and understand, what others are saying". 

So what do the myriad civil society organisations think about the liberalisation process? Not one person we spoke to said ''Don't engage". The only doubting Thomas I found was an old expat journo who believed the whole process was just the generals engaging in "Burmanisation", using democracy as a pretext for signing ceasefire agreements with the troublesome ethnic states around the border so that real power could remain with the central government. 

Another signal that change is on the way in Burma came when Khin Maung Si, a minister and one of the more conservative of the generals, signed the Walk Free - Zero Tolerance for Slavery Pledge with the mining magnate Andrew Forrest and then appeared alongside Thai boy band Slot Machine and American singer Jason Mraz on stage at a rock concert attended by 60,000 enthusiastic Burmese youth. 

The most emotional moment occurred at a dinner with female Burmese activists, each telling about their lives. 

One young woman stood up and said: "I was in jail for 11 years. My husband died in jail and then my house was washed away by hurricane Nagis." We were stunned. She was confident, articulate and excited about the prospects for real change and determined to be a part of the new Burma. 

What these women, all former political prisoners, were asking for was the chance for vocational training. All had seen their education destroyed by long stints in jail but their political savvy and leadership skills were obvious. 

Australian aid should continue to be a part of this process. Australia is Burma's second biggest bilateral donor. Concentrating on education and health, we have also been creative with small amounts being put to good purpose. 

One example of this is the announcement by the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, of money to be spent on proper heritage processes to save the beautiful old Victorian buildings of Rangoon. After the protection of 70 years of closed society, they are at risk. 

But all is not rosy in the Burmese polity. Although 11 ceasefire agreements have been signed, civil war continues in northern Kachin and troublesome Rakhine. 

For Australians, Rakhine has become an issue as the predominantly Muslim Rohingya flee the inter-communal violence and seek refuge in Malaysia and eventually Australia. 

Suu Kyi has been criticised for not speaking out in defence of the Rohingya. As with all such issues, the situation is more complex than seen by us sitting comfortably on our First World sofas, telling resistance leaders what to do. 

Suu Kyi has tried not to inflame the fragile situation. The Buddhist Rakhine feel threatened by the increasing presence of Rohingya, and violence has increased over the past few years. One expat commentator said "there would be a riot" if she spoke out. She has issued a joint statement with lawmakers from ethnic minority parties calling for the government to address the concerns of both communities, and on the vexed question of citizenship she has called for the Rohingyas to have their citizenship dealt with in the broader context of a citizenship commission. 

For us in Australia, it seems a timid response but nobody doubts her courage, so it needs to be seen in the context of the delicate dance she is doing with the generals. 

Australia needs to engage with caution, but continue to press for the release of the few hundred political prisoners and for a humanitarian response to the victims of communal violence in Rakhine. Aid projects should be continued and strengthened. 

It is a pity that at a time when Australian aid can be most influential in the shaping of a new Burma, the aid budget is under threat from domestic imperatives such as a balanced budget. 

Meredith Burgmann is president of the Australian Council for International Development.

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