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Thursday, 23 June 1994
Page: 1956

Senator BOURNE —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. How accurate are media reports which suggest that Australia's ambassador to Burma, Mr Stuart Hume, recently stated that Burma's forced labour practices are acceptable and that Australia was ready to assist Burma with technical and financial assistance for border area development? Was Mr Hume speaking on behalf of the Australian government when he made these comments? Finally, if these comments were made but not authorised in any way, has the government considered recalling the ambassador so that he might become more acquainted with the facts surrounding Burma's military regime?

Senator GARETH EVANS —As to the first remarks attributed to the ambassador by some groups in the Australian NGO community, namely, that Ambassador Hume is supposed to have said that forced labour in Burma is a matter of culture and is therefore okay, my understanding is that during a conversation Ambassador Hume had in Bangkok in April he offered the historical observation that corvee labour has been a longstanding practice in Burma since 1962. Certainly his comments were not intended to condone this objectionable practice. Certainly they would not be condoned by the Australian government. I think there has simply been a misunderstanding or a misreporting of what he actually said.

  As to the other suggestion that the Australian ambassador had conveyed a proposal to Burma's Minister for Border Area Development, Lieutenant General Maung Thint, that an Australian NGO help Burma's military authorities develop the country's border areas, these reports are simply inaccurate. What happened was this: in the context of an introductory call on Maung Thint on 17 June the ambassador asked the minister whether as a matter of general principle non-government organisations would be allowed to work in the country's border areas. Lieutenant General Maung Thint replied in the affirmative.

  The ambassador's question was entirely consistent with the government's position that any humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma should be directed to the areas of greatest need. It is generally agreed that while humanitarian problems exist throughout Burma there are particular needs in the Thai-Burma border region. This follows requests from the Kachin community—which has recently concluded, as Senator Bourne would know, a cease-fire agreement with the SLORC—that the international community provide some form of assistance to Kachin state in the north of the country to alleviate the serious humanitarian problems that exist there. Whether any projects eventuate in Kachin state or whether any other area in the border region develops such projects will depend on whether any Australian NGO puts them forward.

  The government is concerned at reports of continuing human rights abuse, including forced labour, in the border regions. There is no suggestion that Australian NGOs would be involved in the border development activities undertaken by the SLORC itself. I say finally that Ambassador Hume took the opportunity at his meeting with the minister to encourage the SLORC to work towards a genuine and comprehensive national reconciliation with both ethnic insurgents and the domestic political opposition.