What is it that makes anyone - in this case a successful ambassador, someone looking forward to a comfortable, wealthy and secure retirement after a prosperous career - toss away everything for an idea?
Kyaw Moe Tun was still too young to join the wave of protests that broke over (then) Burma's (then) capital Rangoon back in 1990. That was the first democratic election Myanmar's military completely ignored; proceeding instead to change the name of the country, its cities, and even the location of the capital. Rangoon became Yangon, the capital was moved to Naypyidaw (more carefully constructed, with wide boulevards to assist soldiers brushing protests away) and the generals remained in control. Kyaw Moe Tun did the only thing he could: he put his head down, studied hard, slipped into the diplomatic service, accepted the soldiers' restrictions, and urged the world not to push Burmese students away but welcome them, even though the troops were engaged in an orgy of killing and raping Rohingya who'd been settled there for lifetimes.
Then, last year, the generals sent Kyaw Moe Tun to New York as ambassador to the UN and the face of the junta, a bankable sign guaranteeing accommodation was the right approach. The correct thing for the West to do was just trust the generals, leave them in command, and accept that Myanmar was headed in the right direction, even if it moved there ever so slowly.
On Saturday Kyaw Moe Tun was sacked and recalled to Yangon. His "crime" had been to hold up three fingers and uphold the critical, most basic universal value of freedom.
Prominently displaying the rebel salute from The Hunger Games adopted by pro-democracy movements across south-east Asia, and speaking from his heart instead of reading the speech approved by the regime, Kyaw Moe Tun emotionally denounced the military coup. He threw away his career, wealth and country for a (probably forlorn) idea.
"We still need," he urged, "the strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup." And who could argue with that? Urging the military to "stop oppressing innocent people, to return the state power to the people, and to restore democracy" is hardly a "Western construct". Truly universal values - the ones society is founded on - need to be articulated, emphasised and embraced - particularly today, while massive protests continue to paralyse the streets of Yangon and cities around the country. Canberra seemingly has no problem telling Beijing exactly how it should behave in its dealings with ethnic minorities and internal controls, so why not extend exactly the same cold shoulder elsewhere?
Just two decades ago the answer seemed so simple. Back then, enlightened pluralism was on the march and the world basked in the glow of the fall of autocrats in eastern Europe and Africa. The world seemed to be proceeding - gradually, perhaps, but ineluctably nonetheless - down a path that would lead to everyone sharing common ideals and enshrining democracy as the best - the only - form of government. Then came September 11. The US invaded Iraq, a murky mixture of religious fanaticism and kleptomania descended across the world, and things fell apart.
Today we live in the "grey zone".
It's a world where nothing is clear, power triumphs, and what's right is what you can get away with. It's an environment where the double-standard based on personal or political advantage is flourishing. Clear lines between right and wrong or war and peace have disappeared, replaced by pragmatism and surgical strikes. It's no wonder we're confused when we listen to our government. Our politicians often appear confused as they struggle to articulate a path between virtue and pragmatism, idealism and reality - and the reason's simple.
Australia's politicians like to say we're an important country and play a major role in the world. The first part of that statement is true, but the second is palpably false. This is opening a huge gulf between our pronouncements and our actions.
This reality is dramatically apparent in our dealings with Myanmar's repressive government. While our politicians raise one hand in a three-fingered salute, condemning the junta and proclaiming ideals loudly, the other is shaking hands with the generals and hoping to sign deals. The problem isn't the emptiness of the rhetoric; the issue is that the aspirations diverge so widely from the reality of Australia's actions on the world stage.
The only way out of the maze is to establish, firmly and carefully, the principles by which we will act and live. Unsurprisingly, it's those who have engaged with our region over decades - academics, professionals and others who've lived in neighbouring countries - who appear to have a clearer idea of how this might all be achieved than the politicians in Canberra. The politicians seem more concerned with balancing one domestic audience against another as part of an effort to reap votes and win elections.
We have to begin by recognising Australia's position in this grey zone.
Australia has nothing like the power necessary to intervene, anywhere. That farce - that this country has real military power - was exposed as empty when the Fijian military seized power in Suva with a coup in the 1990s. Since then, the way we've proceeded is by binding ourselves more and more closely to America. Unfortunately, nobody's interested in a shrill echo of the basso-profundo view from Washington. Canberra's solemn pronouncements are as empty as the clanging of pots and pans at night in Yangon.
What's necessary, instead, is the sort of approach adopted by Nicholas Farrelly, a University of Tasmania academic who has spent his life engaging with Myanmar. He's never hesitated in reaffirming the positive liberal ideals on which our society is founded (even when these are sadly lacking in practice). What enables him to continue working in an otherwise hostile environment is that he listens, rather than pontificates. Our government needs to do the same.
Matching words to actions is so much more powerful than relying on noise alone.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and regular columnist.