Speaking to The Irrawaddy by telephone, Australia’s shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop said that she is “deeply concerned” about Australia’s participation alongside the Burmese regime in a multilateral naval exercise hosted by India. The naval exercise was undertaken just as Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced a 40 percent increase in Australian humanitarian assistance to Burma.
“The Australian government has not explained this at all,” she said, adding that Australia “should not be sending mixed messages to the Burma’s military government.” Julie Bishop is MP for Curtin in Western Australia and deputy leader of the opposition Liberal Party.
Australia has taken a strong stance against the Burmese military regime in recent years, implementing an arms embargo, and targeting sanctions on individuals associated with the junta. Australia routinely issues harsh condemnations of ongoing human rights abuses in Burma, such the crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution and the junta’s attempt to block international emergency relief after the Cyclone Nargis disaster in 2008.
Zetty Blake, a spokeswoman for the Burma Australia Campaign, told The Irrawaddy that the exercise could be a breach of the arms embargo, while shadow foreign minster Bishop cautioned that the Burmese junta has a murky recent track record in military diplomacy, with allegations of nuclear proliferation links with North Korea neither confirmed or disproved.
However, Carlyle A. Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said that Australia’s participation in Exercise Milan “does not violate its sanctions against Myanmar which prohibit Australia from training or supplying the Myanmar military. Exercise Milan was an operational exercise.”
Canberra says that increased spending—amounting to AUS $50million (US $45 million) per annum—will be used to help the Burmese people, working in partnership with UN agencies, Asean, other donors and NGOs.
Stephen Smith says the Australian government plans “carefully targeted interaction in areas of great need like health, education and agriculture.”
Each person in Burma receives around AUS $4 in total overseas aid per head each year, a 10th of that received by Cambodia and a 16th of that received by Laos.
How the military regime views this new departure remains to be seen. After the 2008 cyclone, the junta blocked large-scale international efforts to help the stricken Irrawaddy delta. Around 140,000 people died, though the true figure is impossible to ascertain, and around two million were directly affected.
Asked about concerns that the aid might not reach the people it is intended for, Julie Bishop told The Irrawaddy that “any humanitarian or development assistance needs to be carefully targeted.”
“There are protocols in place for Australian overseas aid, and these must be adhered to,” she added.
“AusAID appears satisfied that its delivery of development assistance through NGOs is reaching the people on the ground,” Thayer said, however. “AusAID seems satisfied that its controls, monitoring and evaluation efforts are effective and will continue to be so.”
Sean Turnell, the editor of Burma Economic Watch at Macquarie University in Australia, said he is not optimistic about the prospects for the up-scaled aid program. “The track record of developmental aid more or less everywhere is appalling in all but the most conducive of policy circumstances,” he told The Irrawaddy. “Burma’s circumstances are about as far removed from good economic policy as it is possible to imagine.”
Despite the increase in aid, Australia will retain its existing sanctions on the ruling junta in Burma, with Foreign Minister Smith echoing his US counterpart Hillary Clinton by saying that any debate that pits sanctions against engagement creates a false choice, and that the international community needs to employ both of these tools.
Smith said that “these various sanctions––travel sanctions, defense sanctions and financial sanctions––have the common purpose of exerting pressure on Burma’s military regime.” However, Australia’s sanctions policy affects designated Burmese individuals affiliated to the junta, but not companies linked to the regime. The Burmese junta has started to privatize many state-owned entities, but these are being sold to junta associates for the most part.
Zetty Blake believes that sanctions do not go far enough. “Trade and investment sanctions need to be looked at, not least given Twinza Oil’s investment in Burma’s energy sector”, she said. Twinza Oil is an Australian energy company that signed a production sharing and exploration contract with junta-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise in November 2006.
Offsetting the impact of Western sanctions, the military junta makes billions of dollars per annum from selling oil and gas stakes to foreign companies, and by exporting energy to China, India, Thailand and elsewhere. It is unlikely that Australia or any Western country could persuade Asean member states, much less China or India, to combine engagement with sanctions, as per the current US policy.
However Australia’s own sanctions might need some fine-tuning. “We have no mechanism in place to ensure that Australian companies do not fund the regime in Burma,” Blake added.
Whether or not the ramped-up aid program acts as a carrot for the junta to ensure that this year’s elections are free and fair, or whether it brings about the release of political prisoners in compliance with international conditions for the removal of sanctions, remains doubtful.
While saying that the example provided by the eventual collapse of the New Order in Indonesia shows that political change is possible over the long-term, Thayer concluded that “there are no guarantees that present Australian policy, or the policy of the Friends of Myanmar Group for that matter, will alter fundamentally the contrived nature of this political process.”
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