Following dramatic street protests that came frustratingly close to
creating enough public momentum to potentially topple the
military-authoritarian regime, Burma seems to have returned to the
cruel status quo ante of a cowed population suffering ruthless
repression. But is the democracy genie truly back in the bottle? Have
the oppressed Burmese people nothing to look forward to but more of the
same police-state monitoring and intimidation?
There is one hopeful sign of possible change. Last week, all 15 UN
Security Council members agreed a non-binding UNSC presidential
statement on Myanmar. The text 'strongly deplores the use of violence
against peaceful demonstrators in Myanmar' and calls on Myanmar's
military regime and all other parties concerned 'to work together
toward a de-escalation of the situation and a peaceful solution'.
This statement is an important benchmark. First, because of its
strength and clarity. Second, because it is the first time the UNSC has
taken a formal position on Burma; China and Burma having hitherto
argued successfully that it is an internal matter outside the council's
mandate. Third, because China, the Burmese regime's strongest
international protector, endorsed this statement after weeks of
negotiating to soften earlier harsher Western drafts.
What persuaded China to support such strong criticism of its client
regime? The ferocity of the repression, the victimisation of Buddhist
monks, the sharp international distress at events, the forthcoming
leadership transitions in China, and next year's Olympic Games in
Beijing — all may have played a part in inducing China to ease its
hitherto implacable position.
Now, there can be no going back from the new UNSC benchmark. From now
on, the UN will have enhanced leverage to press for dialogue between
Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leadership, and for more protection
of the human rights of peaceful protesters. Out of this,
democratisation can begin to take root in Burma.
In some ways, Burma today reminds me of that key moment in Polish
history in the mid-1980s, after a bloody suppression of Solidarity
strikes in the Gdansk shipyards. Under pressure from a horrified West,
the regime agreed to enter into a structured dialogue with Solidarity.
Poland moved from iron-fist repression to a softer, more subtle
repressive style. Ten years later, an ascendant Solidarity, backed by
the Church, negotiated a peaceful transfer of power from a morally
bankrupt communist regime.
That kind of future is foreseeable in Burma, but it will require years
of determined but sensitive diplomacy, not only by the UNSC but also by
China and other interested states — most importantly, the ASEANs and
other regional countries like Japan, India and, oddly enough,
It seems unlikely the US will have a part to play. China is in no mood
to tolerate lectures in democracy from its rival for hegemony and from
a power that regularly violates human rights norms in the Middle East.
In China's eyes, the US simply does not have moral standing in Burma.
The task for regional countries and Australia would be to dialogue with
China from a different starting point; one that accepts the major
strategic importance of Burma to China. For Burma is a glacis
protecting China's vulnerable southern flank. It is also a trade access
area to the Indian Ocean (including possible future oil transhipments
from friendly Middle Eastern countries, if passage through the Straits
of Malacca were ever threatened by a hostile US). And it is a
So for China it is strategically vital that no anti-Chinese regime
under US influence ever be established in Burma. Such an outcome is
simply not negotiable.
What is achievable is a gradual softening of the harder edges of the
regime — some dialogue on human rights with opposition elements, more
freedom in IT applications, more scope for legal opposition politics,
and the acceptance of greater foreign investment to raise employment
opportunities and living standards.
One is struck by the diversity of China's relationship with bordering
states or autonomous regions. These relationships include frankly
tributary relationships, like North Korea, Hong Kong, Tibet and Laos.
Yet each is very different in character. Then there are non-tributary
relationships like Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Russia, the former
Soviet Central Asian republics, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Vietnam … and
the troubled relationship with Taiwan.
The point is, there is no single model, but many models Burma might
aspire to, as a democratic contiguous state that accepts a degree of
Chinese hegemony. The trick would be to persuade China that it can both
have its cake and eat it in Burma.
Perhaps next year Kevin Rudd might help open up Chinese thinking on
Burma? He has the expertise and standing to do so. It could be the
first example in many years (since the UNTAC settlement in Cambodia) of
a successful Australian regional diplomacy involving Chinese interests.
Tony Kevin retired
from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998,
after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's
Department. He was Australia's ambassador to Poland (1991–94) and