I’m delighted to inform you that the Western Australian Legislative Assembly passed unanimously my motion in support of human rights in Burma.
This will be a difficult year for all of us as the Burmese military seek international legitimacy for their sham election. It’s important that we continually remind people of the true situation in Burma.
JOHN HYDE MLA
Member for Perth
Shadow Minister for Culture and the Arts;
Heritage; Multicultural Interests and Citizenship
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PARLIAMENT OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA
LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY - Wednesday, 19 May 2010
BURMA — HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
MR J.N. HYDE (Perth) [6.30 pm]: I move —
(1) That this house notes that the 5 March 2010 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the
Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar documents “a pattern of gross and systematic violation
of human rights which has been in place for many years and still continues”.
(2) That this house welcomes the Australian government’s indication that it would support
investigating possible options for a UN commission of inquiry.
(3) That this house —
(a) reiterates its support for human rights and democracy in Burma;
(b) calls for the release of each of the 2 100 political prisoners in Burma;
(c) condemns the 2008 constitution as anti-democratic; and
(d) calls on all governments to refuse to accept the results of the Burmese elections
scheduled to be held later this year unless all political prisoners are unconditionally
released and a new democratic constitution is introduced that would permit the full
participation of all political parties and individuals and would respect the will of the
I thank members on both sides of the house for agreeing to give us exactly 29 minutes to debate this motion.
Why is the Parliament of Western Australia debating a motion on human rights in Burma? There are a number of valid reasons for that. As parliamentarians elected democratically in a true democracy, we have a commitment to human rights. We also have an obligation to foster human rights elsewhere. We have a particular obligation to foster human rights in Burma for a couple of very important reasons. Firstly, traditionally, the majority of Burmese who have migrated to Australia have ended up in Western Australia. Secondly, if we look at the whole
issue of refugees and the concept of boat people over the past 30 years, we have to be dinkum and ask: what is the desperation that drives people to leave their homeland, which is a place of comfort with their own language and religion? If we have the ability to lessen the pain, desperation and persecution of people in their homeland, we will make inroads into the issue of refugees.
I thank members of the house, particularly the bipartisan group the Parliamentary Friends of Burma. We came to some agreement that we would attempt to pass this motion this evening. Unfortunately, the member for Morley has fallen ill. He was probably going to be the lead speaker for the government, but I understand that the member for Riverton will speak on behalf of the member for Morley and other government members who have a commitment to the Burmese community in Perth and to Burmese human rights.
The member for Girrawheen and I were very fortunate some six years ago to be the first western
parliamentarians to be permitted to visit the Burmese refugee camps on the Thai border. As we discovered, some 150 000 Burmese people are in refugee camps. In many ways, this is the forgotten story of refugees in the world today. The Burmese junta is so sinister, devastating and cruel that the story of the degradation of the Burmese people has not been able to come to light. I pay credit to federal governments of both persuasions after the member for Girrawheen and I were able to visit Mae Sot and go into the camps. We encouraged the then federal
Liberal Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Hon Amanda Vanstone, to visit. She visited and immediately increased the Burmese refugee intake into Australia, and that has made a considerable difference. We continue to accept a large number of Burmese refugees, because we have a duty in terms of human rights and compassion. We also have a duty in terms of multicultural Western Australia. I think that all members of this place have had exposure to the many Burmese groups in Western Australia. We know that members of the Burmese community have become incredible citizens in this state. I pay credit to groups such as Tribal Refugee Welfare of WA, which a number of members will join with next month to commemorate the birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement in Burma who is still under house arrest;people such as Keith and Connie Allmark and their daughter Debbie; and Nancy Hudson-Rodd, Lily Pinto and others who have campaigned tirelessly for the rights of the Burmese people. We also have the Burmese Association of Western Australia. I attended its forty-fifth anniversary some weeks back. It is an amazing group that has helped refugees and migrants who have come to Australia. Because of their Burmese origins, they have taken it upon themselves to help other Burmese.
The persecution of Burmese has occurred across the 100 language and ethnic groups within Burma. The majority group, the Burmans, formed the basis of many of the early refugees and migrants who came here in the early 1960s. Today among the 100 groups of ethnically diverse Burmese, we have predominant groups such as the Christian groups of the Karen, Shan, Mon, Rohingya, Chin, Kayah, Karenni and Arakan who have sought refuge in Australia. Other groups such as the Anglo–Burmese Society, the Emmanuel Burmese Baptist Church, the Ethnic Communities Council and many other advocates have worked tirelessly on behalf of Burmese refugees.
We had a very moving occasion some three years ago when we met Daw San San, who was one of the Burmese members of Parliament elected at the 1990 democratic election—the only democratic election held in Burma— when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a resounding victory. A number of the people who were elected to Parliament never had the opportunity to meet in Parliament. Daw San San, a woman of 80 years of age now, who was democratically elected but was never able to sit in Parliament in Burma, was able to come into the Parliament of Western Australia. The then Speaker allowed a photo to be taken, and that photo figured prominently in The West Australian. It was a very moving occasion for those of us involved.
I commend this motion to members, even though I have spoken briefly as the lead speaker. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity, after each speaker has been allowed five minutes to speak, to close at one minute to seven so that we get the chance to put this motion. A very similar motion was passed unanimously in the New South Wales Parliament two weeks ago. I commend the motion to members. I thank those members of the Parliamentary Friends of Burma, such as the member for Swan Hills, who have come to functions. The Parliament has shown its support for what is perhaps a smaller multicultural group in Western Australia, but a very important one.
MS A.J.G. MacTIERNAN (Armadale) [6.37 pm]: There are people who might query why we in the state Parliament of Western Australia are raising this issue of human rights and the situation of the Burmese people.
There are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, we have a longstanding and growing Burmese community in our state. Secondly, along with the member for Perth and the previous member for Perth, I have had a great deal of contact with that community. I think I have been attending functions for almost 20 years.
I first became aware of the situation of the Burmese when I visited Burma some 34 years ago in 1976 and found a very beautiful country, but clearly a country that was under an oppressive regime, although the regime in Burma at that stage was nowhere near as oppressive as it is today. The great tragedy of Burma is that it was in fact a very rich country. It abounded, and still does abound, in resources, but it is a country that has been driven by its brutal and corrupt regime into a state of poverty. At the end of the Second World War it was the rice bowl of Asia, and now it is a country where almost half of its 50 million people live in extreme poverty—not just poverty but extreme poverty. Its child mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. The decades of military rule and oppression have indeed eroded civil society and the civil institutions. Of course, we know that this regime has managed to continue because it has the support of China and India, which is a most unfortunate situation.
I think there is a fundamental reason that we need to raise this issue today. I am reminded of when members of the African National Congress came many years ago, after they had received their independence and their liberation and when South Africa became a free country. The members of the ANC said very clearly that in those darkest days it was the acts of international solidarity that kept them going. It is absolutely critical that each and every one of us does what we can to ensure that the Burmese community and the people of Burma understand
that they are not forgotten and that we will continue to support their case for freedom and their ability to live in peace and enjoy what is really, and should be, a very, very beautiful country.
MS M.M. QUIRK (Girrawheen) [6.41 pm]: We are at a turning point in the history of Burma. This motion reflects that it is time to take action. The situation in Burma has come under public scrutiny in recent years because of, for example, Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest for more than a decade; in 2007, the so-called saffron revolution when the military rounded up monks, nuns, students and other innocent civilians and arrested them;cyclone Nargis and the great devastation that ensued and the diversion of humanitarian aid and the singleminded herding of those people facing the devastation of that cyclone to vote in a referendum; the large number of political prisoners—more than 2 000; and a mounting collection of reports from independent observers and the United Nations all condemning the military regime and identifying sustained human rights abuses. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps in the region, including on the Thai–Burma border.
Why is it, as the member for Armadale sees it, important for a state Parliament to move this motion? I think there are two reasons. First, as Kofi Annan aptly said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech — Today’s real borders are not between nations, but between powerful and powerless, free and fettered, privileged and humiliated. Today, no walls can separate humanitarian or human rights crises in one part of the world from national security crises in another.
Secondly, with more refugees fleeing from Burma and arriving in Western Australia we are hearing more and more personal accounts of the abuses occurring in that country. We owe it to some of our newer Western Australians to publicise the awful events occurring under the military regime. We owe it to our friends. The member for Perth has listed those people who have provided great advocacy and support to refugees coming to Western Australia.
There are many United Nations reports. They were summarised by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, which was presided over by prominent jurists, in its report “Crimes in Burma” of May 2009. That report concluded —For many years, the world has watched with horror as the human rights nightmare in Burma hasunfolded under military rule. The struggle for democracy of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung SanSuu Kyi and other political prisoners since 1988 has captured the imagination of people around the world. The strength of Buddhist monks and their Saffron Revolution in 2007 brought Burma to the international community’s attention yet again.
But a lesser known story—one just as appalling in terms of human rights—has been occurring in Burma over the past decade and a half: epidemic levels of forced labor in the 1990s, the recruitment of tens of thousands of child soldiers, widespread sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and torture, and more than a million displaced persons. One statistic may stand out above all others, however: the destruction, displacement, or damage of over 3,000 ethnic nationality villages over the past twelve years, many burned to the ground. This is comparable to the number of villages estimated to have been destroyed or damaged in Darfur.
It is very important this year that we make ourselves heard about the inequities and the human rights abuses in Burma, because this year the junta is purporting to hold a democratic election. It is very important that we publicise that certainly all appearances suggest that it will not be democratic. It is very important that we have change in Burma. For decades the international community has condemned these abuses. Burma has become the international pariah. It is consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, a global centre for the narcotics trade and money laundering and a major source for trafficking in persons. Death and disability from malaria, landmine injuries and malnutrition are widespread. The regime restricts access to international aid and censors, imprisons its citizens and persecutes ethnic minorities. As the member for Armadale said, the absolute shame of all this is that Burma has rich resources. It has been described as the rice bowl of Asia and is highly prospective in mineral and oil wealth. With a democratic regime the potential is enormous.
As I conclude I want to pay tribute to the internationally recognised Dr Cynthia Maung, who runs the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot on the Thai–Burma border, which has been operating for 20 years. The clinic provides medical care to refugees, orphans and ethnic minorities fleeing persecution in Burma. It sees over 90 000 patients annually. It is staffed by volunteers and medics from all over the world. The clinic copes with everything from minor maladies to malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, pneumonia, mental illness and the many young women raped by Burmese soldiers. On Saturday I will be attending a Tribal Refugee Welfare of WA function to raise money for the clinic.
I certainly commend the motion to the house. I think the last word should go to Aung San Suu Kyi herself — We will surely get to a destination if we join hands.
DR M.D. NAHAN (Riverton) [6.47 pm]: I stand to support this motion, in part standing in for the member for Morley, who is ill and is not here today and would want to support this. Again, as did the member for Armadale, as a state politician I approached with some reluctance getting involved in complex international issues, not only because of our area of expertise and responsibility, but also because of the delicacy of the issue. Nonetheless, as the member for Armadale said, there are valid reasons for making comments on this issue. In particular, there are a large number of refugees from Burma who now call Western Australia home. This is an issue of burning concern to them, with some strong validity. The second issue is the nature of the regime and junta in Burma. It is particularly callous and inconsiderate of its own people. Nothing shows this more than the cyclone that occurred in May 2008 when more than 140 000 people were killed or missing. The United Nations, non-government organisations and other people around the world gave immediate offers of aid, which were largely refused.
Eventually, due to international outrage, when the aid was allowed into the country it was restricted and too late, and many tens of thousands of people died needlessly. It showed the nature of the regime.
The concern here is that of course back in 1990, due to international pressure, the regime did allow a fair and open election to some great extent. When the election turned against the regime and the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi got more than 85 per cent of the vote, she was not allowed to take over and she has spent 14 of the past 16 years under house arrest. Since then the regime has accumulated more than 2 000 political prisoners. The central point is that the regime is not only not considering moving towards democracy, but also inconsiderate of the torture and wellbeing of its own people. Therefore, it is for people from outside to assist in putting pressure where they can on the junta for it to recognise that it has to be part of humanity. The issue now is that the Burmese regime has called another election for this year. It is purposely designed to be rigged to prevent the National League for Democracy from gaining hold and to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from winning another election. It is also meant to lock in the power of the regime where 200 seats of the Parliament are specifically restricted to military people. The election is also in a very diverse country of more than 130 ethnic communities and is designed to sustain control not only of the military, but also of the central government over the regions. Therefore, it is important for us to say that this should not be allowed. I might add, though, that this is not a new regime. The policies since independence of the Burmese government have been basically isolationism, or militarism, and of restricting trade and openness to outside forces. I think it will be a longstanding battle but one that we have to express and participate in.
I would like to end with a statement from Aung San Suu Kyi. When she was asked, after 16 years of house arrest or imprisonment whether she had hope, she said, “I do not hope; I persevere” That is what we must do. I therefore stand in support of this motion.
MR W.J. JOHNSTON (Cannington) [6.51 pm]: I too rise in support of this motion. This is, in my view, a very important motion for the Western Australian Parliament to endorse. To understand the scale of the issues in Burma, it is probably worth noting that out of 231 countries Burma rates as number 208 for gross domestic product per capita on the US Central Intelligence Agency’s The World Factbook. Members can therefore see that we are talking about one of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in the world. It is run, as other members have noted, by a brutal military dictatorship.
Several members interjected.
The SPEAKER: Members!
Mr W.J. JOHNSTON: It needs to be noted that the regime itself estimates that more than 138 000 people were killed by cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Of course the actual death toll was probably higher. In my community of Cannington, I need to note the work particularly of the Karen Welfare Association led by Lily Pinto, and indeed the work of organisations like the Boogurlarri Community House run by Maria Cavil, who are working with arrivals from Burma to assist them in integrating into the community. The Burmese people form an important
part of the Cannington community. Indeed, my research officer, Ron Sao, is a Burmese refugee and one of my part-time electorate officers, Fran Laine, is an Anglo–Burmese person. The Burmese people are regarded as hardworking people who are keen to integrate and to assist the Australian community and we are enriched by their joining our community. But of course they are running from a regime that is very brutal and is the worst of the worst in the world. It is tragic that the Burmese regime receives support from the Chinese government. That is one of the great disappointments. It is interesting to note comments made in the Economist magazine of 6 May 2010 when it was looking at people’s uprisings, including the 2007 uprising in Burma; it reads —The final lesson from looking at the history of these popular uprisings is that they only succeed if the security forces allow them to. That is not to say that they must enjoy the army’s support. But they can be stopped if soldiers are prepared to slaughter enough of their own people. Mercifully few regimes have that kind of determination. Deng Xiaoping’s was one. Myanmar’s junta, now with the blood of monks on its hand, may be another.
I think that really sums up the whole situation in Burma. It is because the regime is prepared to kill its own citizens, regardless of any other issue, as it did in cyclone Nargis and as it did in the September 2007 uprising, that it can so brutally hold on to power. It needs to be condemned by Parliaments, including by the Western Australian Parliament.
MR G.M. CASTRILLI (Bunbury — Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Interests) [6.55 pm]: I rise to support the motion. The only part of the member for Perth’s motion that I question is the latter half of part (3), which “calls on all governments”. I do not support that part of the motion. However, I support the sentiments of what the member for Perth is trying to do. I say that only because, as a state Parliament, I do not think we have much influence over other governments around the place, and we cannot really tell them what to do; they probably would not listen to us anyway. However, I certainly support the efforts of the commonwealth government and I certainly support the sentiments expressed in the motion.
The member for Perth has moved a motion on a very important issue. It has been a great cause for concern for successive governments. Despite the fact that as a general rule, as I said, matters of foreign policy fall within the jurisdiction of the commonwealth government, it is clearly an issue for all Australians, not only for the people of Western Australia. We are fortunate to have just over 5 000 Burmese people in Australia. According to the 2006 census, Western Australia has about 45 per cent of all Burmese people living in Australia. Therefore, we, as a state, more than any other state, take an interest in what is happening in Burma in trying to see that democratic principles are enforced in that country.
There is not much time for what we are trying to do with this motion this evening. I just say that Australia has been responding increasingly to the levels of suppression by the military junta through targeted sanctions against the regime, including trade restrictions, bans on financial transactions and the like, increasing humanitarian programs, which I think the member for Perth alluded to earlier, and assisting those fleeing from Burma. Of course, those members of the Burmese community who migrated to Australia in the early 1960s have been able to sponsor and bring relatives to Australia through the reunion program. That is something that we certainly support.
In February 2008 the military junta announced that it would hold a constitutional referendum in May 2008 and an election in 2010. Of course, when cyclone Nargis struck on 2 and 3 May 2008, it was a real tragedy. The death toll was put at more than 100 000, with more than 55 000 people missing. However, the junta still went ahead with that constitutional referendum and did not really worry about the situation in which the Burmese people found themselves. The result of that constitutional referendum was adopted, which was a real sham. I certainly support the Australian government in its efforts and what it is trying to do in influencing the outcomes—like others are doing throughout the world. I certainly understand that the Australian government endorses the call by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, for the international community to get up and support those efforts. I certainly support all those efforts.
MR J.N. HYDE (Perth) [6.58 pm] —in reply: I thank all members for their contributions to the debate on this motion and for their cooperation to enable us to put it to the vote. I acknowledge that the member for Balcatta and other members wished to speak to this motion but, because of time constraints, have not been able to do so.
Question put and passed.