Our cozying up to the military regime in Burma

If the military regime in Fiji deserves smart sanctions against its officials, relatives, supporters and sports teams – and it does – then you’d think New Zealand would be zealously promoting a policy of absolute zero tolerance towards the military regime in Burma. You’d be wrong, though. We may claim to have smart sanctions on Burma in place. Yet, as Green Party MP Kennedy Graham has discovered, New Zealand has been training representatives of the dictatorship as part of our aid programme – and under our 22 week English Language Training for Officials (ELTO) course, the New Zealand government has welcomed Burmese regime officials here since 2003 at least.

True,the numbers do not appear to be large. While NZAID could not supply by deadline the figure for 2003, there have been 14 officials trained here since 2004, including an intake of 7 in 2006. Currently, no-one from Burma is here among the 2009 ELTO intake.

That may be just an accident. Keep in mind that the regime of Than Shwe and his fellow generals is one of the most despicable regimes on earth. Besides the suppression, torture and murder of dissidents, the regime chose to let tens of thousands of its citizens to die unnecessarily in the wake of Cyclone Nargis last year, rather than allow them to accept international humanitarian aid.

While the continuing house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi earns the lion’s share of the global headlines, the regime has also – to take a few examples – jailed 23-year-old student Kay Thi Aung in September 2008 for providing aid support to cyclone victims, and imprisoned her in such deplorable conditions she has since suffered a miscarriage. Also keep in mind the fate of the comedian Zarganar, sentenced to 59 years imprisonment for criticizing the regime’s failures. Don’t forget the suppression of Burma’s ethnic groups, such as the Karen people. Does the Maori Party have any opinion about our aid programme being used to teach English to the bureaucrats who support the oppression of the Karen and the Shan? Just wondering.

Regardless, Foreign Minister Murray McCully own officials have defended the fact that our helping hand has been directed towards assisting these hand-picked representatives of the Burmese tyranny. Reportedly, McCully’s spokesman has maintained that the regime officials we have been training are only ’junior bureaucrats’ and that exposure to the New Zealand open democratic way of life might even be enlightening to them! As in… today class, we are going to learn about democracy. D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y. It means the ability to vote your rulers out of office. Everyone here OK with that?

Leave aside whether any “junior bureaucrat’ would be getting one of these plum ASEAN foreign language training assignments. Plainly, the Burmese delegates on the ELTO course were being groomed by the regime. I’d be more inclined to believe the Nelson Mail July 20, 2005 (“Pacific Neighbours Drop In”) when it portrayed the ASEAN delegation’s visit to the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology in these terms :

, a group of 16 government officials have arrived for intensive English language training at NMIT The officials, from Cambodia, Vietnam, Timor L’Este (formerly East Timor) and Myanmar (formerly Burma), hold important posts within their governments [ my emphasis] and will spent eight weeks studying at NMIT.

Right. Hold important posts within their governments. Why is McCully – who while he was in opposition was bitterly critical of the Clark government for being ‘soft on Burma’ – acting this way? Is it really because ASEAN and the Obama administration have been holding out bait to the junta in Rangoon, to try and induce it into better conduct? That’s what seems to have been happening, judging by this report in the Irrawaddy Times in late July, about the recent visit to the region of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday in Phuket, Thailand, that the US would expand relations with Burma if the military government released opposition leader Suu Kyi, who is now on trial.

“If she [Suu Kyi] were released, that would open up opportunities, at least for my country, to expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma. But it is up to the Burmese leadership,” Clinton said while attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Leave aside whether this is a moral strategy, or even a sensible one – trading one person’s political freedom for a raft of American investment in an economy that is tightly controlled by the generals? Still, at a stretch, a justification could be mounted. Perhaps the Clinton gamble was that the possible release of Aung San Suu Kyi so close to the 2010 elections in Burma would so transform the political environment that the risks of such a trade-off could be acceptable. Either way, the regime didn’t take the bait. In the course of playing its own games of diplomacy this week, the junta sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to ‘only’ a further 18 months of house arrest. Just enough ‘leniency’ to keep the suckers in ASEAN, Washington and Wellington coming back to offer more, next time.

The more immediate point is that our language training programme illustrates that New Zealand is quite willing to be pragmatic and strategic about how it engages with the regime in Rangoon. Perhaps it can now show some of the same pragmatism and strategic subtlety in the way it deals with the Bainimarama regime in Suva.

There is another alternative, of course. We could assume the same stance of unbending principle that the Clark and Key government like to think they have taken towards the Fiji regime, and do exactly the same with Burma. This is what Kennedy Graham is urging them to do. Such an approach should entail declaring – on principle – that no further regime representatives will be welcome and accepted on the ELTO programme until the military dictatorship announces a realistic timetable for free and fair elections in Fiji – I mean, Burma.

I wouldn’t be holding my breath for that one. The New Zealand foreign policy stance – a tiger towards Fiji, a pussycat towards the far worse regime in Rangoon – is taking its cues from the US, and from ASEAN. Same as it ever has. Funny how a government that makes such a fetish about the need for consistency in economic policy, should be so happily inconsistent when it comes to its foreign policy.


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