Democracy and human rights in Burma

Voting_in_Yangon_8Nov15.jpgMr JAMIE PARKER (Balmain) [12.14 p.m. November 12, 2015]: The people in my electorate care deeply about human rights. 

They care also about a democracy free from corruption. That is one of the reasons I am hosting the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in Leichhardt at the Italian Forum on 11 December this year. I was in Myanmar—Burma—in June this year where I attended the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in Rangoon. I was moved by the powerful films that were on display. I returned yesterday from Burma having been an observer to the democratic elections that have taken place in that country. Hopefully, this first free and fair election marks a momentous change in the country and a momentous shift in human rights for millions of displaced people, for ethnic minorities and for the environment.

Since 1962 the people of Burma have laboured under colonialism and then dictatorship, with the national uprising of 1988 setting the scene for the previous general election, which was not respected by the military. The military failed to recognise that historic win by the National League for Democracy [NLD], led by Aung San Suu Kyi. A repressive crackdown followed, which filled jails with political prisoners, and The Lady, as she is known, was placed under house arrest for the next 15 years. Politics was deadlocked between the NLD and the military, with many ethnic groups maintaining armed opposition. A political stalemate ensued for more than two decades.

In 2011, after years of international sanctions and economic stagnation, the impasse was broken when Aung San Suu Kyi was released and successfully contested the 2012 by-elections. The military-backed government also committed to this year's November 8 election as part of its road map to democracy. I was pleased to have an op-ed piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 November which outlined my views on this issue. I have been a long-time observer and am a founder of the Australian Coalition for Democracy in Burma. Using my rudimentary Burmese, I had the opportunity last week to be part of that historic day. There are problems, however. The military-drafted constitution reserves 25 per cent of the seats for the military. The results of the election are being drip fed, but it is clear the NLD will emerge as the largest party in the 664 seat parliament. Before last Sunday's election Aung San Suu Kyi highlighted that any future government should focus on national reconciliation. She said:

      Even if we win 100 per cent, we would like to make a government of national reconciliation in order to set a good precedent for our country. It shouldn't be a zero-sum game where winner takes all and loser loses everything.

Despite the tensions, the election was conducted relatively free from violence. However, there remains a risk the country could descend into inter-religious or ethnic conflict. The current constitution allows for the military to declare a state of emergency at the slightest threat to what they call "national unity". As Australians, we need to do everything we can to promote pluralism and democracy in that country. My colleague in the upper House will be moving a motion which I am confident will be supported, as I am confident the motion moved in the Legislative Assembly will be supported. The motion notes the election and the deeply flawed constitution, calls on the military to respect the election, and expresses support for the National League for Democracy, those ethnic parties that have successfully contested the election and all who took part in that election.

Buy_tickets_button.jpgWe need to redouble our efforts to ensure change to the constitution, which currently does not allow the leader of the National League for Democracy to become president of that country, even though her party will receive the majority of votes. The opportunity to select Ministers is still in the hands of the military elite and the budget for the military will still be determined by the military alone, not by the Parliament which was elected by the people on 8 November. I acknowledge the work of all those in my electorate and across Australia who have struggled for so long to see this important step forward. During her recent visit to Australia, Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged the importance of the international sanctions campaign to the progress that has been made.

I also acknowledge the role of the Burmese community in Australia and in Sydney in particular, trade unions, faith-based organisations, in particular, the Caritas, members of The Greens and all those who have supported the campaigns for democracy and freedom in Burma. Finally, I thank the members of my local community and I encourage everyone to come along to the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in Leichhardt. We will be showing four award-winning films made by young Burmese filmmakers who have the support of a range of international organisations such as Polish Aid, USAID and others to make sure they can tell their story and we can keep progressing the story of this incredible country.

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