Aung San Suu Kyi, refugees and bikies


Aung San Suu Kyi

The weekend's big news was the release on Saturday of Burma's democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi. Because it was so stage-managed by the Burmese Government, it's hard to describe the release itself as a step forward for human rights. More significant perhaps was reporting of how she faced her captivity.

A London Times report published in The Australian on Friday depicted her at peace with herself and her God. It said she rises early and spends hours in Buddhist meditation, before listening to the news on her shortwave radio. After a meeting with her last year, the British ambassador described Suu Kyi as 'composed, upright, crackling with energy'.

No doubt her attitude and spirit is what has the potential to carry the people of Burma forward. Availablity for political office is secondary.

Meanwhile Thursday was a momentous day for justice and human rights in Australia. Politicians, effectively engaged in mob rule by proxy, were humiliated. Separate High Court judgments upheld the legal rights of the Sri Lankan refugees M61 and M69, and South Australian bikies, in the face of fiercely determined political will.

Former prime minister John Howard was not mindful of the law and UN protection obligations incorporated into Australian law when he declared before the 2001 federal election: 'We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.' He knew he had the support of the people, and this was soon demonstrated by the election result. 

It was support of the people that mattered. His Labor successors had the opportunity to reverse the thinking. They could have declared: 'The law will decide who comes to this country …'.  They did not, and indeed they could act to frustrate the legal rights recognised by Thursday's judgment.

Last year South Australian premier Mike Rann admitted he had a personal axe to grind against motorcycle gang leaders: 'I am determined that criminal bikie gangs won't run our pubs, our clubs, or run our streets.'

Thursday's High Court judgment ruled unconstitutional a provision in Rann's anti-bikie laws that allows the Attorney-General to use secret evidence to pass judgment on individuals on the basis that they are members of an organisation such as a bikie gang that is involved in 'serious criminal activity'.

Like federal politicians promising to 'stop the boats', Rann managed to cultivate fear in people, declaring that motorcycle gangs 'are involved in everything from murder to rape to extortion to kidnapping to running protection rackets'.

Popular fear is political gold.

It could be instructive for Australia's leaders to remind themselves that cultivation of fear among the people is essentially what keeps totalitarian leaders in power. Arguably it makes little difference whether the people fear invasion by boat people, rape and pillage by bikies, or intimidation by the police or military. The promise by corrupt, ambitious, or even well-meaning leaders to deliver them from fear is irresistible. The law can't do that, it can only treat all people equally.

Burma is the totalitarian regime most on our mind, following Suu Kyi's release and the sham election earlier this month. Suu Kyi has worked out that passive resistance based on interior strength is the best way to overcome the attempts of political leaders to intimidate her. After years of being cut down by authorities, she not only survives, but flourishes.

It's likely that she also holds fast to the maxim that political leaders ignore the law at their peril. No doubt she'd have taken heart if she heard on her shortwave radio last week that Australia's politicians had learned that lesson, even if it was clear that the leaders in her homeland would take much longer.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

Topic tags: Burma, Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, High Court decision, asylum seekers, tamils, bikies, mike rann



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Existing comments

Thanks for this excellent article. It is unfortunate that many Australians remain in confused with respect to the raft of so-called "Anti-Bikie Laws".

Love Bikers or dislike them; but make no mistake - these laws represent a very serious attack on human rights.

More broadly this article is a good reminder that human rights are not something that can be given or taken away by Governments as they see fit. Human rights are rights inherent in the dignity of the individual person, their source ultimately deriving from the fact that we are all created in the image of God.

Dave - Sydney | 15 November 2010  

Aung San Suu Kyi's release is the more timely in terms of Australian politics where our pollies are openly wondering, along with the general electorate, just what they stand for...if anything.

With our key national values trailing in the dust, captive to pointed polls, now would be an excellent time to invite such a hero to address our federal parliament...

The real risk to such a proposal is that the Burmese military might never let her back into Burma again.

It would be wistful thinking that such a fate would ever befall any of our key political figures!

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 15 November 2010  

"The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear"
— Aung San Suu Kyi

Patrick | 15 November 2010  

Aung San Suu Kyi has lived the essential life and we are all brimming with warmth and joy for this woman of courage,hoping to emulate her in our own small struggles for freedom.

No matter what we face each day we can say it is always worth making choices to respect people and remember our shared and inherent dignity. Humanity is vastly diverse and gifted;we have succumbed to other riches and forgotten this beauty found next to us and also within and the incomparable beauty found in true compassion.

Our indigenous family is in need of a deeper communion.What are we afraid of? Why are we fearful?

Catherine S | 15 November 2010  

But Michael we have all the bigots to keep happy.

Marilyn Shepherd | 16 November 2010  

I'm instinctively a political libertarian, I'm not an admirer of Mike Rann, I'm certainly not opposed to bikie groups as such, and, yes, the High Court Bikies' decision may be technically correct constitutionally, but IMO, there is little reason here to celebrate: it in fact does about as much to eliminate fear in our community as the OJ Simpson acquittal did to promote the legitimate interests of blacks in the US.

From evidence of close acquaintances, if you're a reformed prostitute trying to rescue other young women from the dreadful, desperate cycle of drugs and prostitution, one of the most brutal obstacles in your way is the network of bikie gangsters and associates (including some police, no doubt) making your life hell. This decision may be a defeat for the "politics of fear" on some genuine, albeit rather superficial level. But my guess is it will instill visceral terror into the hearts of certain South Australians once again.

Innocent, greathearted bikies - there are lots of them - and other stakeholders may have have been unfairly dealt with and/or threatened by this law. But its overthrow is a hollow victory indeed if the terrorising of heroic reformed prostitutes is to resume as a consequence. We must pray to our newly canonised St Mother Mary of the Cross that these women and their allies - 'freedom fighters' in the noblest sense - have the strength to continue their crucial, but unsung battle.

HH | 18 November 2010  

The criminal activities of bikie gangs and the involvement of people from the Middle East in these gangs are well established and surely governments should be taking every action to protect law-abiding Australians from their crime and thuggery

Peter Sorensen | 22 April 2013  

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