Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 02:51 | SYDNEY
Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 02:51 | SYDNEY

Burma: Time for some activist middle power diplomacy


Andrew Shearer

12 May 2008 13:03

It is impossible to look at this morning’s media coverage of Burma — even the few skerricks of news to have made it through the wall of secrecy erected by one of the world’s most appalling regimes — and not feel profound anger. Just look at the photograph in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald to see what I mean. And disease and malnutrition in the wake of the cyclone could make for an even greater humanitarian disaster.

Despite the entreaties of most of the international community to let the aid flow, the generals’ predictable response has been to clamp down on media coverage, circle the wagons and content themselves with relabelling the trickle of aid packages that are getting through in a further, pathetic effort to mislead the Burmese people.

The Australian government has, rightly, been calling on China and other regional governments to pressure the regime to give the aid agencies free access. Under pressure, it has increased our own contribution to a (still pretty dismal) $25m. What more can we do?

Surely this is a situation tailor-made for the sort of creative, activist ‘middle power’ diplomacy that the Rudd government espouses? The crisis is in our neighbourhood. No other country is better placed to help bring concerted regional pressure to bear, drawing on our strong Asia-Pacific bilateral ties. That would take a serious effort though.

The countries with the greatest leverage over the regime are China, Japan, India and the members of ASEAN. China is key. Mr Rudd claims a special link with the government in Beijing. He should use it to call President Hu Jintao and insist that as a responsible member of the international community China bring all its weight to bear. And although Mr Rudd has previously been too busy, surely this disaster merits phone calls to the prime ministers of Japan and India? Our consultations with Southeast Asian leaders also need to go beyond press releases.

Time is running out but, with some commitment, Australia could put itself at the forefront of a coalition of countries that averts a further humanitarian catastrophe as we did following the 2004 tsunami.