Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2010



7:11 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to speak briefly on a very different matter and make a couple of remarks this evening about a trip that a colleague, Felicity Hill, and I took very early this year to the Thai-Burma border to a small community called Mae Sot, which is a regional city very close to the Burma border. It is the location of what is called the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge and is one of the major crossing points between Thailand and Burma. We spent a couple of days there and then a night in Chiang Mai, meeting with people who are working on issues more relevant to the northern part of the country.

Last year, the parliament was visited by a remarkable Burmese woman, Dr Cynthia Maung and a number of her colleagues. She runs a health clinic in the town of Mae Sot, on the Thai side of the border, called the Mae Tao Clinic. She came to Canberra to inform Australian policymakers about the plight of her people and, in particular, those living in the eastern part of Burma, where there are roughly half a million internally displaced people on the Burmese side of the border and probably an equal number of displaced people on the Thai side. She invited all of the people who came to see her to visit the clinic and see the kind of work that she and her colleagues are doing. I took up her invitation.

Burma is a slow-burning conflict. It does not always attract the same kind of attention as other conflicts, but since 1962 a brutal and vicious regime has been in control of this small but resource-rich country. The protracted nature of that conflict has led to a degree of international fatigue, and so it only really breaks the surface of mass consciousness from time to time—although I think most of us do at all times remember one of the world’s most famous political prisoners, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But there are thousands of other political prisoners and this is a situation that just seems to go from bad to worse. In that time the generals of that regime have become very good at manipulating the geopolitical system, talking the talk and gradually buying themselves more and more time. They have become very adept at that indeed. They have formed friendships and partnerships with countries and corporations that, in return for plundering the country’s natural resources, essentially provide a revenue flow to keep that regime in place.

In 2007, I first opened my eyes to this situation, due to the work of the wonderful Burmese community in Perth. There was world attention during the Saffron uprising because, for the first time, the regime had taken on the Sangha—they had taken on the monks. Some analysts at the time said, ‘Now it is only a matter of time. They have taken on the Buddhist monks and that is really the beginning of the end.’

But it has really just brought to the surface and highlighted a situation that has been ongoing in Burma for such a long period of time, whether it be forced labour, conscripted child soldiers, more than two thousand political prisoners and 15 million people nationwide living in poverty; about a quarter of the population lives on under a dollar a day. If there is a worse regime and a worse situation in our region, I struggle to think of it. It certainly would be one of the worst places to live anywhere in the world, and of course it is in our region.

Of the roughly half a million people displaced in the eastern part of Burma, about 230,000 are in temporary settlements, 111,000 are hiding in remote areas most affected by military skirmishes and about 128,000 people—men, women and children—have been forcibly relocated. Between August 2008 and July 2009 about 75,000 people were forced to leave their homes in eastern Burma. That is in the space of under a year.

The majority of these people do not have access to any services and they are not receiving any aid money including from the recently increased aid contribution provided by Australia through United Nations agencies and NGOs, because most of Australia’s aid budget and most of the international community’s budget is filtered through groups based in Rangoon. It is partly due to the rough terrain and the political infrastructure that exists in Rangoon, but the fact is that eastern Burma was, and is today, a war zone and it is incredibly difficult to deliver aid in that context. Australia’s increased aid budget was certainly appreciated by the Australian Greens, and I can tell you that it is appreciated by the people working on policy there in the places that we visited. But very little of it is actually hitting the ground in eastern Burma where it is needed the most; the people in the border area on either side of the border are suffering all of the awful conditions of living in Burma plus the fact that they are in a war zone where there are regular or irregular military operations that could descend on villages at any time. It is truly an appalling situation—all of the worst aspects of living in a country like Burma plus the fact that you are in a conflict zone.

We were told that the survival and health of women is threatened in particular ways in a climate of abuse and impunity, coupled with a breakdown of social order. Rape is used systematically as a weapon by the dictators and by the military, as documented in a horrifying report called Licence to rape by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women’s Action Network, which found its way into the United Nations system and actually caused the regime a lot of alarm. But in fact these abuses still continue today.

They have these tireless advocates, like Dr Maung and the organisations working in the Thai Burma Border Consortium, who remind as many people as they can of their plight, and the visit here last year was a part of that. But as well as the advocacy role they play, they are also engaged in providing vital health services, food and support to people who can get out and cross the border. I was really honoured to visit Dr Maung’s clinic in the first couple of days this year.

Dr Maung left Burma in 1989 during the worst of the violence in the events consequent to the failed election there. At that time she and her five colleagues established a clinic with one building and six medical staff. Today it is a large complex with 300 professionals volunteering, providing regular vaccination services, which was happening when we were there, prostheses for 200 landmine victims and care for children. Also, over 13,000 outpatients were looked after last year. So there is an enormous amount of work going on that is entirely funded by non-government organisations and huge numbers of volunteers. I should mention that nearly everywhere we went up there we bumped into Australians. The Australian culture of volunteering in these circumstances is obviously alive and well. And people love working up there. Inasmuch as you are surrounded by that kind of trauma, there is also an incredible amount of solidarity and good work that goes on. That was exceptionally inspiring. Last year the clinic experienced a 20 per cent increase in patient numbers, with about 1,000 people a week coming to the clinic. They are really struggling under the workload.

One of the things that I really wanted to highlight is the people who cannot leave Burma—the people who cannot cross by the bridge. They cross on big rubber tyres or they cross the river further downstream away from checkpoints. These are the people who come from the Burma side of the border into Thailand for medical training, to pick up supplies and then move back into the country to deliver that support and expertise. The work of these so-called ‘backpack medics’ is misunderstood by many people. They are not foreigners trekking into Burma to deliver aid and cash. Mostly, they are Burmese people who do not really have the opportunity to leave their community or are choosing not to exercise that opportunity. They are moving into Thailand, where they can reach the limited support the non-government organisations can provide, and then taking those resources and that material back into the country. And this is all there is by way of the healthcare system in eastern Burma because the regime has basically wiped out the civil infrastructure in that part of the country. It is something that I hope that our aid agency and our foreign ministry understand extremely well, because aspects of this work are exceptionally dangerous, but it is work that we should be supporting. As I said, most of Australia’s foreign aid goes into Rangoon and very little of it is actually touching the ground up in the border areas, where it is needed the most.

The experience of visiting an orphanage run by Social Action for Women was remarkable because it was a mix of joy and trauma, I suppose. We made friends with these kids—the language barrier did not really seem to be a problem. The women who run the centre told us that the number of orphans is obviously enormous due to the nature of that conflict.

We spent a period of time in the Mae La camp, which is about 80 kilometres from Mae Sot and has 50,000 people living under bamboo and palm leaves. They have been there for well over a decade. They are expecting an influx of more people to come over the border during this year in the run-up to the so-called elections that the regime is promising. They made the point very strongly to us that the military is so constrained by funding that they have to occasionally cancel military offensives against these people that we were meeting, because they do not have the funds.

In closing I want to make a plea, firstly, for Australia to consider more of our aid budget moving up to these areas, where the funding can reach the people who really need it the most, but also that we take a good hard look at the trade and investment policy of Australia, because there is $50 million a year in bilateral trade between Australian companies and Burmese companies. All of it must occur with the consent of this vicious regime, which is effectively like doing business with a country run by organised criminals. I will have much more to say about this. I just want to record my thanks to the people who showed us around and gave us so much of their time.