Article Categories: Speeches, Foreign Affairs
I rise in response to the ministerial statement on Burma. I have long had a personal concern with the oppressive regime in Burma. During my time in business I had many commercial interests in Thailand and gained an appreciation of the totally unacceptable conditions that applied across the border. I visited many of the border regions on business and in conversations over meals at night would be told of the horrific incidents that were taking place within that country. As Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs responsible for the settlement of refugees I had firsthand exposure to the refugee camps and the horrendous experience of many people throughout their lifetime being exposed to a life in a refugee camp and all that goes with it. Earlier this year I attended a meeting of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly and had a one-hour private meeting with a group of exiled Burmese politicians. Again, many of my views of the regime were reinforced. There is an urgency about dealing with the situation in Burma.
The coalition welcomes any well targeted measures that extend Australia’s deep concerns relating to the violation of human rights and the suppression of democratic ambitions in the state of Burma. Burma’s regime, the so-called State Peace Development Council, has overseen economic decay and social disintegration since 1988. The regime has ensured that Burma is now the cot case of South-East Asia. The events of September last year briefly brought the plight of the Burmese people to the world’s attention, but in no way have the problems which have led to such protests subsided.
The ongoing detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, has become the symbol of the brutal nature of this regime. Her release is paramount to reaching a peaceful solution and settlement. The Australian government must persist, as the previous government did, in making formal representations at the highest levels of government in urging the Burmese regime to address human rights and the release of all political prisoners. This must be done in cooperation with our regional neighbours, including China and Thailand, who are among Burma’s leading trade partners. It is also critical that ASEAN be front and centre of such efforts.
The further sanctions announced today by the Minister for Foreign Affairs follow on from the previous sanctions implemented in October last year by the former government. These financial sanctions announced by the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, were well targeted against 418 individuals, including members of the State Peace and Development Council, cabinet ministers and senior military figures. This coincided with $14 million in humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people, who are the innocent victims of this regime. These funds were directed through a number of organisations and supported basic health, water and sanitation for vulnerable people among the south-east and northern border regions of Burma.
I note the statement by the minister that the initial response of the Burmese regime to Cyclone Nargis was very disappointing—and indeed it was very disappointing and caused great hardship to many hundreds of thousands, in fact millions, of Burmese. However, I also must note that the initial $3 million response from the Australian government was also very disappointing—it was a pittance. The death toll from the cyclone was of 2004 tsunami proportions. It is estimated that over 200,000 Burmese died as a result of the cyclone. As was the case with the tsunami in late 2004, Australia should have been taking a strong and immediate lead in responding to this tragedy. An AusAID team should have been made available immediately and Australia should have indicated that we were prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars, as we did with the tsunami, in assistance to this country in such difficult circumstances. This is our region. We are a successful, developed country with leadership responsibility to respond effectively to emergencies in our region, and especially to emergencies which relate to a country which is in such a dire situation and where the people are so oppressed.
Australia was well placed to respond to the situation in Burma due to the investment by the Howard government in Australia’s ability to respond to regional crises. In the final two budgets of the Howard government, over $100 million was set aside to improve Australia’s response to emergencies in the region. I do acknowledge the final contribution by the Australian federal government to this crisis. I would also like to warmly acknowledge the work of Australian aid bodies, including World Vision and Care Australia. I have met previously with those bodies and was very impressed by the work they had undertaken. As these organisations told me, the effects of the cyclone were comparable to those of the 2004 tsunami yet there was much less media coverage given and consequently private donations were much fewer than they were in 2004. We are a generous country, and I am sure most would be surprised to hear that World Vision received only $5 million in private donations for cyclone relief compared to over $100 million following the 2004 tsunami.
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