governance

Why Aung San Suu Kyi is silent

wpid-screenshot_2015-06-20-19-27-36.pngHere is my latest column for the New Straits Times about why Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent about the circumstances of the Muslim Rohingya: Why Aung San Suu Kyi stays silent

 

‘A Politician, Not an Icon: Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya’

Islam and Christian Muslim RelationsHere is a link to my latest article. Published in the journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/AIExfyxdwswI6nJRRBAc/full#.U3yq8CyKCP8

ABSTRACT: In Myanmar (also known as Burma), the Rohingya are a persecuted Muslim minority living mainly in northern Rakhine State. Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of Myanmar’s opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD), is championed as the voice of the people. However, on the matter of the Rohingya’s persecution she has been notably silent. This article examines the possible reasons for Suu Kyi’s silence and argues that Buddhist–Muslim political relations in Myanmar are central to understanding the reasons behind Suu Kyi’s position on the Rohingya. It is suggested that various factors, including the history of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the NLD’s attitude towards the Rohingya, Suu Kyi’s sense of obligation to her father’s political legacy, and Suu Kyi’s views on ethnicity, are creating a political environment in which Suu Kyi is presented with pragmatic political reasons for staying silent. Given Suu Kyi has the potential to become a future national leader, an understanding of her behaviours towards a sizeable persecuted Muslim minority is important. This is particularly the case when consideration is given to the contemporary pressures on Muslims to embrace radical politics and the implications this could have for Myanmar and the region.

Queensland’s unicameral parliament limits oversight and scrutiny of government decisions.

Queensland abolished its parliamentary upper house in the 1920s

Queensland abolished its parliamentary upper house in the 1920s

Despite being well intentioned, the abolition of the Queensland Parliament’s upper house has had a negative and lasting effect on public policy and there are important lessons that can be learned from this Australian state’s experience.

In the early 1920s Queensland was in parliamentary turmoil. The recently born Labour Party had established itself as the political majority in the state but its legislation was regularly frustrated by the state’s upper house, the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council’s conservative majority maintained its position courtesy of a process of appointment that saw members serve indefinitely.

Labour attempted to break the impasse by first legislating the Council out of existence and when this failed (the Council unsurprisingly, rejected the Bills), appealed to the public at a referendum, unsuccessfully. Ultimately, the Labour government swamped the Legislative Council with new appointments – the so called ‘suicide squad’ who voted the abolition of the body in 1921.

Queensland’s State Parliament became one of the few in the world to abolish its Upper House and since has operated as a unicameral legislature.

The abolition of the Legislative Council was hailed as a chance for government in Queensland to function as the people wanted – their democratic will could be enacted without the hassle and cost imposed by the state’s house of review.

For a time this was precisely the case. A backlog of legislation became law including the creation of one of the world’s first workers’ compensation schemes. However, since the 1920s the lack of any meaningful parliamentary review of government decisions contributed to a centralisation of government decision-making powers into the hands of an executive that knew its decisions would receive limited parliamentary scrutiny.

In recent decades, this lack of parliamentary oversight combined with the trend in modern-politics for centralisation of power with presidential-style campaigns, political party power structures concentrating power into the hands of the top-tier leadership and a media cycle that reinforces this has seen increasingly poor government decisions made yet receive the Parliament’s stamp of approval.

In Queensland’s case, at its worst, this manifested in 32 years of unbroken rule by a right-wing party supported by a minority of the state’s voters but maintained in power by electoral boundaries endorsed by the unicameral parliament which guaranteed the re-election of the government despite receiving a significantly lower share of the vote than its opponents; bans on peaceful political protests; endemic police and political corruption; and, for three decades, a scandalously underfunded health and education sector. For much of the 1970s and 1980s the state was known as much for its lack of civil liberties and its police and political corruption as it was for its idyllic beaches and sunny weather.

My experience serving in Queensland’s unicameral parliament for three terms was fortunately not during this era but still the shadow a weakened parliament hung over all government decision making and oversight. Queensland’s unicameral parliament simply does not provide for the parliamentary opportunity to scrutinise Ministerial decisions to the degree that should be the case. And neither could does a unicameral parliament’s committee system allow for adequate scrutiny of legislation. Lack of oversight and increasing centralisation of political decision making contributed to a sidelining of diverse voices and ideas.

The government groupthink that takes hold in such circumstances inevitably results in poor policy decisions. In Queensland’s case, the most striking of these involves poor spending decisions that committed the government to billion dollar road construction projects when, for a fraction of the cost, there were public transport solutions. Today, Queenslanders are suffering from a budget crisis, service and public service job cuts, significantly contributed to by poor government spending decisions such as these a decade ago.

Modern Parliaments need more rather than less diversity and more representatives with the time to pursue issues in depth and without the constraints of stifling party discipline. In contemporary parliaments this is a role most easily fulfilled by an upper house – in Ireland’s case, Seanad Éireann.

The notion that the Seanad is beyond repair says more about the administrative capacity of the government to manage this reform than it does about the Seanad. Far too many political problems are caused by decision makers not listening to the community and it is not going to give us better policy outcomes if political leaders have even less requirement to listen to people’s voices.

My experience in the Queensland parliament was that a unicameral parliament cannot deliver the necessary scrutiny of government decisions and I’m a big believer in the importance of a having a house of review in every Parliament.  Queensland’s state parliament is one of the few in history to abolish its upper house – and in public policy terms the experience has been far from positive.

The diaspora does not get a formal say in the Seanad referendum, all we can offer is our advice and experience. In this case my experience says – keep the Seanad, reform it and use it to hold the government to account.

Aussies overseas deserve better support from their government

News reporting that Australian Alexandra ‘Pippi’ Bean feels let down by the Australian government during her ordeal in Libya is both worrying and sadly becoming an increasingly common experience for Australians finding themselves in trouble overseas. The Age article is here.

There was a time when Australian citizens traveling overseas and finding themselves in difficulties could rely on the Australian government for top notch support no matter the cause of the trouble. Support was not withdrawn or limited if the Aussie government assessed they might be guilty of a crime or if they had been involved in activities the Australian government found politically uncomfortable.

Or if their activities caused political embarrassment for the Australian government.

Australians could historically rely on excellent consular support as a right of citizenship. Of course, many still do but others are worried that since the time Julian Assange found himself in trouble overseas Australian government support has become much more arbitrary and politicised.

Guilty or innocent, Assange is an Australian citizen who found himself listening to calls from senior Australian government figures for his Australian passport to be cancelled. Hardly the actions of a government Aussies overseas would feel they could reply on.

Now Pippi Bean says she felt abandoned when Foreign Minister Carr told the ABC’s 7.30 she did not require further assistance. Clearly she did.

Australians deserve better and the federal government needs to lift its game here. It important for the government to listen to the message from citizens like Pippi Bean and genuinely lift their game here – especially at the political level. I’m not criticising Australian diplomats but rather their political masters who set the tone and from whom overseas agencies and governments take their cues about the degree Australia’s government cares about its citizens when they are overseas.

There are many countries who do not seem to care about their citizens’ welfare either at home or abroad – and this means we should never make the assumption overseas governments will assume foreign nationals have the support of their respective governments (Aussies included).

Our government needs to strongly signal to the rest of the world that Aussies in trouble overseas will receive top level diplomatic AND political support. This should be something we take for granted and it should be a policy priority for the millions of Australians who travel overseas annually.

Its a nice thought but Labor is not going to soft pedal on the Greens

Today I read two articles arguing why Labor should not vigorously campaign to take votes from the Greens as we approach the federal election instead allowing both parties to focus attention on tackling the conservatives.

You can read the article by Dennis Altman here and by Nicholas Barry here.

I’m not getting into whether the suggestions by Altman or Barry are worthwhile aspirations instead I want to address their key points in our current political climate – and I just don’t buy the core political arguments being made.

The first broad argument is laying off the Greens can deliver a better preference deal for Labor; the second argument, Labor should see the Greens as kindred-spirits and work more cooperatively to maximise the non-conservative vote.

Both suggestions would have been useful to the Greens and Labor at last federal election but the current political climate is very different.

The preference argument doesn’t stack up for me because Labor is in the box seat where Greens preferences are concerned. Federally, voters must indicate a preference and I just don’t see how the Greens could or would, in the current political climate, encourage their supporters to preference Liberal. This leaves the question of the Senate and I think here, based on recent polling trends, it will be the Greens most in need of Labor preferences. I’m not convinced Labor could easily be convinced to back off attempts to retake votes from the Greens in this climate – there just isn’t enough in it for them.

The higher your vote the better position your party will be in to negotiate a preference deal. Labor will simply campaign hard, taking as many votes from the Greens as possible and only then make a final decision about preferences.

The second argument is Labor should work more cooperatively with the Greens to maximise the non-conservative vote. Since Labor has already devised a strategy to begin retaking many of the votes they have lost to the Greens over the last three election cycles its hard to see why Labor would now see any political benefit for themselves in soft pedaling on the Greens.

It is time the Greens realised Labor is unlikely to do them any favours prior to the federal poll – you can argue all you want about whether it is in the long-term interests of both parties but the fact is Labor is going to be interested only in their own political health. And if you listen to Labor figures like Paul Howes the Greens could well be the focus of a good deal of Labor’s attacks.

This means the Greens need to work out why their vote is softening, realise Labor will not be doing them any favours and start thinking seriously about where the preferences needed to retain senate seats are likely to come from.

Cambodia and the failure to prosecute Khmer Rouge genocidal monsters

Khmer Rouge victims' skulls

Khmer Rouge victims’ skulls

Cambodia is a country cursed by its history but it seems determined to keep itself mired in government corruption and a failure to prosecute, let alone punish, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime.

I’ve written before about the dreadful situation in Cambodia and recommended people interested in the subject read Joel Brikley’s book ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ but the recent news the UN tribunal (part Australian government funded) designed to prosecute only the Khmer Rouge’s senior figures will not proceed further with the trial of Ieng Thirith is appalling.

Thirith, the sister-in-law of Pol Pot and the regime’s minister for social affairs is accused of crimes that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people but is too ill for the trial to continue.

This leaves just three Khmer Rouge figures facing trial – KR head of state Khieu Samphan, KR foreign minister and Nuon Chea, the KR chief ideologist known as ‘Brother Number 2’. The tribunal has managed just one verdict, to imprison the head of the infamous Tuol Sleng torture centre and prison in Phnom Penh, Kaing Guek Eav known as ‘Duch’.

This is an appalling outcome for a tribunal designed to give the victims of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous communist ideology some justice and allow the country to begin a process of rebirth so Cambodia’s people can more on from their tragic history.
Sadly the tribunal has been subject to much of the same incompetence and corruption seen throughout much of Cambodia’s government apparatus and the consequences are obvious – despite being responsible for the brutal murder of close to one quarter of the population of Cambodia, close to 2 million people – decades after these monsters have been removed from power there has been just one judicial verdict. Its enough to make you sick.

And Australia’s government, who is part-funding this charade should be asking serious questions about how this UN endorsed tribunal can be working so slowly that it appears to be almost trying NOT to reach verdicts until the accused are so old or frail that their trials must be stopped.

Remember, all the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial are in their 80s. This is very old by Cambodian standards but let’s face it, they all had access to better food and healthcare than just about every other Cambodian during the country’s worst times. And these evil people were the one’s pointing the guns and creating the twisted ideology.

You can read the details of the tribunal’s decision to release the Khmer Rouge’s ‘first lady’ in The Age here but you will probably wish you hadn’t.