‘Burma/Myanmar in Transition: Connectivity, Changes and Challenges’


Very happy to have delivered a paper at the recent International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies at Chiang Mai University ‘Burma/Myanmar in Transition: Connectivity, Changes and Challenges’.

My paper, “Holding Back the Tide: Can Myanmar’s Democratic Political Leaders Prevent a de facto Religious Test for Full Citizenship Rights?” addressed the rise of Buddhist nationalism, discriminatory government policies and how I believe this is changing the nature of Myanmar citizenship. It was part of the Ethnic Politics and Minorities panel, chaired by Dr Jacques Leider, with Dr Matthew Walton acting as discussant.

Discussants Derina Johnson and Dr Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi at the International Conference of Burma/Myanmar Studies, Chiang Mai

Discussants Derina Johnson and Dr Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi at the International Conference of Burma/Myanmar Studies, Chiang Mai

Dr Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi and Derina Johnson @Derina_Johnson were discussants in the panel Crossing Frontiers: Multiplication of Burmese Migration in Asia.

More details about the conference including links to draft conference papers can be found here.

‘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.

Proportional Representation – why we should support it and why the Greens need to defend it

Ireland uses proportional representation to elect members to Dáil Éireann, the national parliament and has done so for decades without the catastrophe predicted by opponents of PR like The Australian columnist Jenet Albrechtsen (article here) and without complaints like those of my local federal MP Kelvin Thompson who writes in his most recent electorate newsletter about the number of candidates contesting the 2012 Moreland Council elections as “confusing for voters” (you can read the Summer 2012 Wills Report here).

Proportional Representation gives parts of our community unlikely to gain political representation in single-member electorates the chance to play a formal role in our democracy. It means political interests that are single-issue, a little outside the mainstream or have struggled to gain voice within the big political parties can still aspire to be elected to local councils or Parliament.

PR’s opponents have tended to be critical of how this system reduces the threshold of votes required to elect a candidate and it has undoubtedly been good for smaller or newer parties like the Greens to have a chance of election to public office. Without PR it is likely Australia’s political system would more closely resemble that of the US where it is virtually impossible for new political movements to break into the elected political system.

Similarly, PR gives the community the chance to assess the qualities of new parties without the requirement of electing them in single-member electorates. Voters get to make judgements about whether to give them a greater say in future elections as they have with the Greens who now have a Deputy Leader representing a single-member electorate in Melbourne or consign them to the political waste basket as they did with Family First.

PR is an important safety value within our democracy making sure significantly sized and supported minority groups are not alienated from representative politics – it gives them a stake in the system and it removes the temptation to join existing political parties to internally pursue their single-issue agenda.

As MPs go, I have found Kelvin Thomson to be a pretty good local representative and have been delighted with his involvement with issues like the campaign against live animal exports, his interest in environment issues and the positive community role he played following the tragic death of Jill Meagher (giving credit where its deserved – Thomson’s work here was in cooperation with the local State MP Jane Garrett). But I disagree with his views about PR in Moreland Council.

Moreland Council is a fast changing part of Melbourne including the suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg and should actively encourage as many voices as possible to participate in elections. This doesn’t mean sitting Councillors will (or should) be changed but rather it allows more people to seriously participate in the council’s democratic process.

And if there’s anything Moreland Council has needed lately its new and different ideas. True, Moreland does some things very well, its Libraries for instance are excellent as are local parks, but the lengthy closure of the Brunswick swimming pool (it was closed when I moved here last summer and is still a building site) and regular news reports about failures of the Council to reliably separate recycling from other garbage doesn’t convince me the solution lies in limiting the number of candidates who think they might have a chance to be elected to Moreland Council.

And that’s what this change would be about – limiting the numbers of candidates contesting future council elections who believe they have a genuine chance of election and who consequently make a campaigning effort to match. There’s a huge difference for candidates between contesting council wards with four Councillors to be elected and wards who will elect just one – and this can be seen early in such campaigns where many candidates simply realise they have no chance to winning the single position up for grabs and curtail their campaigning, often leaving their issues to similarly quickly recede into the background.

From a party political perspective removing PR from Moreland Council is likely to have a sudden and dramatic influence on the Greens’ ability to gain local council representation. So for that reason at least I would expect the Greens to strongly oppose any such change, just as Labor could be expected to support it.

I’ve written before about Labor’s electoral strategy of chasing the support of Greens voters but this suggestion to change an electoral system goes a step further. It removes political structures that give the Greens a beach-head to build their party. Its smart but tough politics by Labor and could cripple the Greens in the longer-term by denying them local representation and all that comes with that including resources, profile and importantly the ability to train future state and federal candidates. It would also make it more difficult for the Greens to recover from any future electoral downturns which could turn a temporary electoral setback into a more permanent situation.

The Greens, from a party perspective, should be worried about attempts to remove proportional representation from Victoria’s councils but the broader community should be worried about the impact such changes could have on the vibrancy of Victorian local government elections – I see large council electoral fields as a positive sign for our democracy rather than a bothersome confusion.

The electoral commission is considering these matters so you can make comments about this or other aspects of Moreland Council’s elections by visiting the Victorian Electoral commission website here.

Bringing democracy to University of Queensland Union

University of Queensland, Brisbane. Pic: UQ.

For once I get to write about democracy and not criticise events in Burma. This post is about events at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

University elections have a reputation for being hard fought. There is a combination of young people with a lot of free time, developing ideological commitments and the fact there is really no independent regulation of how elections are conducted or how incumbents perform. Since campus newspapers are owned and edited by the student associations and are published around six times per year they really can’t be expected to fulfill the role of an independent critical media.

I’ve written previously about the importance of maintaining student control over student services (there is an article from Online Opinion here) but as should be the case with any system of ‘government’ whether it is municipal, trade union, company, state or federal government there needs to be a system of checks and balances.

This is crucial to make sure a majority elected fairly at one election does not simply change the rules or disqualify opponents to make sure they remain in office indefinitely.

I studied politics at the University of Queensland, lived in the area for a decade and even helped  a pal run for UQ Union (from memory he was keen to highlight how John Howard’s Liberals taxed beer rather than champagne). But as a UQ student my political focus was off-campus where I represented the university and surrounding areas in State Parliament so I avoided ever seriously getting involved with UQ Union. But many of my friends did.

Pals contested elections and participated in on-campus debate. For many their involvement with UQ Union was their first serious political involvement and forged the beginnings of careers in politics, public policy, journalism and academia. Student Unions have been a political training ground for all parties for generations.

This is why we should take what happens with student elections seriously – it often sets the boundaries for what is acceptable in future political activity. And this is why the actions of the current leadership of UQ Union are both surprising and right to criticise.

Yesterday my Facebook newsfeed started to fill with news of friends supporting a group called ‘Democracy 4 UQU’. You can find this site here, it states “The University of Queensland Student Union has disqualified all major competitors in this years Student Elections”.

Here is the story as far as ‘Democracy 4 UQU’ is concerned:
“This year at the University of Queensland, all major competitors for the UQ Student Union have been disqualified in a blatant manipulation and politicisation of the electoral system.

The incumbent Fresh Union have modified the electoral rules the day before they announced the election to prevent competition and to guarantee control of the $16 million dollar association. By appointing their associate as Returning Officer, refusing to notify councillors of meetings and limiting recourse to an independent electoral tribunal, not to mention refusing to announce the opening of nomination or election dates they have deprived UQ Students of their right to democratic representation.”

This is one side of this story and there no doubt is another, but these concerns warrant independent consideration. There shouldn’t be anything to concern the decision makers about their decisions being open to public debate and consideration, particularly considering the size of the budget of UQ Union.

The ‘Fresh’ team has for years been associated with the Liberals. If this is how they are training their youngsters then Australian voters are right to be concerned and question what steps the Queensland Liberal National Party leadership are prepared to take to pull their younger members in to line with democratic values. And University of Queensland students will rightly question how their once prestigious Student Union has come to be unfavourably compared to some of the anti-democratic states they can learn about in the Arts Politics course.

What the Melbourne by-election tells the Greens.

My article about why the Greens went so close to winning the Melbourne by-election without getting over the line first is available at Online Opinion today. You can find it here.

Jennifer Kanis, Labor campaign poster, Melbourne by-election, July 2012

Cathy Oke, Greens poster, Melbourne by-election, July 2012

Why the Green Vote Will Rise in 2012, article in April ‘The King’s Tribune’

In April’s The King’s Tribune I respond to Drag0nista’s piece ‘Have the Greens Peaked Already‘ and argue the Greens vote can rise in 2012. Here is the link to my article.

Also, you should encourage local publishing and public policy debate by buying The King’s Tribune at your newsagent.

‘Burma and Bipartisanism’ Online Opinion article

Suu Kyi home on University Avenue

Here is the link to my article ‘Burma and Bipartisanism’ available on the Online Opinion site from today: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13436

“It is time the west made some efforts to demonstrate at least something like the domestic bipartnership they are demanding of the Burmese”