Simpkins and Karen Armed Struggle

By Barrie Cadshaw

When the time comes to write the definitive history of the Abbott government, the role of Coalition backbencher Luke Simpkins will likely elicit no more than a few glib sentences. Despite his pivotal role in bringing Monday’s leadership vote to a head – announcing late last week that he would move a spill with the support of fellow Western Australian MPs Don Randall and Dennis Jensen – his contribution was soon lost in the frenzied momentum of the weekend’s events.

It’s understandable that the incidental details of this present crisis would be drowned out. In certain arenas there was an undeniable display of public pleasure, as people considered the possible humbling of a Prime Minister who has consistently been the bête noire of every progressive cause in Australia over the last two decades, from republicanism to abortion rights.

Nonetheless, it’s a shame that greater public attention has eluded Simpkins in the last week, an omission that in my opinion reflects Australia’s continued insularity from political circumstances elsewhere in the region. After all, it’s not often a backbencher on the rightmost fringes of the Liberal Party makes a solitary call for armed insurrection against a sovereign government.

Yet that’s what Simpkins found himself doing on January 31, exactly a week before his early morning bombshell. At the invitation of the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), one of the military wings of the Karen National Union (KNU), the former Army major and member for the north suburban Perth electorate of Cowan made an illegal crossing into Burma from the Thai border town of Mae Sot. As reported by Fairfax Media’s Lindsay Murdoch, Simpkins had come to take part in the commemoration of Karen Resistance Day, the anniversary of the 1949 decision by the KNU to take up arms against the government of Burma in what has come to be the world’s longest-running continuous insurgency.

Any history of the Karen peoples’ war runs the risk of mystifying the casual observer – there are too many acronyms, factional splits and competing personalities to give the conflict the exposition it deserves. Suffice it to say, the toll wrought on the local population over the last 66 years has been nothing short of obscene. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, civilians have been subjected to arbitrary physical and sexual violence by the Burmese Army, and many others have been forced into labouring on infrastructure project or working as porters for Burmese Army soldiers, according to Amnesty International.

It would be remiss to suggest that the Karen struggle has been unassailably righteous. UNICEF has condemned Karen rebels for the enlistment of child soldiers, and the split of Buddhist Karen soldiers from the majority Christian guerrillas in the 1990s led to internecine battles and a loss of territory from which the KNU has never recovered. Even today, factional struggles within the Karen cause have delayed a mooted consolidation of the different Karen armies into a much more effective fighting force, to the detriment of the people whose aspirations the senior officer corps are purported to represent.

Despite these ambiguities, the Karen have been the beneficiaries of a groundswell of international support over the years, and Simpkins is not the first Australian to be drawn into the Karen cause. ANU Professor Des Ball, the Vietnam draft-resister turned preeminent Australian intelligence expert, has made countless trips into Karen state in the last 15 years, offering Karen rebels training in insurgency techniques. Then there is the case of David Everett, a former SAS soldier who fought in the jungle with Karen troops, before returning to Australia and committing a spate of armed robberies in an ultimately futile attempt to raise funds for Karen guerrillas.

To what do we credit Simpkins’ support of the Karen insurgency? The MP has made nearly 20 parliamentary speeches on Burma over his seven-year political career, often referring to the representations made by constituents who hail from Burma’s myriad minority communities. He describes being moved by a 2011 visit to camps on the Thai-Burma border, where many refugees from the former junta’s crackdown on the 1988 uprising have lived for the past quarter-century.

Recent speeches show the depth of Simpkins’ scepticism as to the sincerity of political and economic reforms in Burma over the last four years. In that context, it is worth considering the extent of his sympathy – and indeed, the merits of that sympathy – with Karen political aspirations.

In an interview with Rangoon-based news magazine The Irrawaddy, Simpkins expressed concern that the Burmese government was tactically using ceasefire agreements to consolidate their advantages over ethnic armies. This is undeniably true, and not only in the Karen case. A long ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in the country’s north broke down in 2011, amid incidents of military violence and accusations that business interests close to the former junta were plundering the region’s lucrative jade mines.

Simpkins also used the interview to express support for a federal democracy in Burma. Indeed, some sort of graduated federalism is a key demand of ethnic minority armies in ongoing negotiations towards a national ceasefire accord in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, of which the Karen armies are a party.

It was the purging of army chief of staff Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen, which precipitated the KNU’s decision to take up arms against the government; he was replaced by Ne Win, later the country’s dictator from 1962-88, whose gradual purging of the non-Bamar members of the officer corps has been a source of lingering, intense resentment. The government made an abortive push for a conclusion of the ceasefire accord on Union Day, February 12. The occasion, ironically, marks the anniversary of independence hero Aung San Suu Kyi’s signing an agreement which promised limited autonomy to ethnic minorities in Burma’s frontier areas, something the current government has kept strictly off the table.

At the moment, Australia’s recent rapprochement with Burma has proceeded with a steady pace since the (dubiously conducted) election of a quasi-civilian government and the instigation of far-reaching political and economic reforms over the course of this decade. In the last 12 months both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Andrew Robb have made official ministerial visits to Burma, and last November the Prime Minister attended the ASEAN ministerial forum in the capital, Naypyitaw. Australia’s foreign aid spend has risen to $90 million in 2014-15, and Australian petrochemicals company Woodside has secured an oil and gas exploration license off the country’s coast.

With Burma’s political situation now in flux, and further political reforms off the table for the time being, further commitments in foreign aid and private investment appear to be contingent on the outcome of a general election scheduled for later this year. This “wait and see” attitude has not precipitated any public expression of concern. Canberra has so far been silent on the recent flare-up of violence in Burma’s north, which began last November when the Burmese army shelled an ethnic army training base near the Kachin town of Laiza, killing 24 officer cadets.

Simpkins, along with Randall and Jensen, helped to precipitate Monday’s leadership spill, and all three MPs are seen as close to their state colleague Julie Bishop, also the Liberal deputy leader. If Bishop’s involvement in the spill attempt against Abbott was more pivotal than initial reports suggested – as the appearance of some rather conveniently timed reports from press gallery journalists Peter Harcher and Laurie Oakes last weekend would suggest – it is curious to wonder what quid pro quo Simpkins may have sought from the Foreign Minister.

Will Simpkins use his instrumental role in the putsch against Abbott to urge the Bishop to take a more strident line against Naypyitaw?Human rights causes often make strange bedfellows, and life in Southeast Asia’s last pariah state often makes for rude awakenings. The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society have been consistent campaigners for democracy and ethnic rights even while dismissing the cause of the minority Rohingya in western Arakan State. Some members of the Buddhist clergy were instrumental in the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and other members are presently instrumental in politically charged religious offence prosecutions.

A man whose first parliamentary contribution of note was to speak out against the apology to the Stolen Generations, and who has made himself known as a trenchant supporter of the ludicrous campaign against halal certification in Australia, seems an unlikely advocate for minority rights in a faraway country.

And yet, should our government once again begin to speak out against ongoing human rights abuses in Burma, the long-suffering people of Karen State will, in part, have Simpkins to thank.

Barrie Cadshaw is an Australian journalist based in Yangon.

Feature image: Luke Simpkins MP