Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 631

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (4:21 PM) —by leave—I wish to update the House on developments in Burma. On 4 January, Burma’s Independence Day, Burmese Senior General Than Shwe announced that plans were under way to conduct elections in Burma this year. Elections have long been foreshadowed under the Burmese military’s so-called ‘Roadmap to Democracy’. If elections do take place, they will be the first in Burma in 20 years. This year will, therefore, be an important one for Burma and an important one for the international community’s engagement with Burma.

Australia has long been appalled both by the Burmese military’s suppression of the democratic aspirations of the Burmese people and by its disrespect for their human rights. It is worthwhile recalling some important events in this longstanding suppression. A military regime, in some form, has ruled Burma since 1962, nearly 50 years. We recall the bloody put down of the pro-democracy protests in 1988, just over 20 years ago. Since 1988 Australia has had in place visa restrictions against senior members of the Burmese regime and their associates and supporters.

Following the failure to implement the outcome of the 1990 elections, in 1991 Australia introduced a ban on defence exports to Burma. This is a ban on the export to Burma of controlled goods as listed on the Defence and Strategic Goods List. In October 2007, financial sanctions were introduced in response to the violent crackdown on democracy protesters. These various sanctions—travel sanctions, defence sanctions and financial sanctions—have the common purpose of exerting pressure on Burma’s military regime.

At the same time, Australia has recognised that engaging the Burmese authorities serves important national, regional and international interests. We live in the same region. Through regional forums like the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Bali Process on people smuggling, human trafficking and transnational crime, Australia has had the opportunity to engage Burma on challenges like counternarcotics, trafficking in people, disaster relief and pandemic diseases.

As well, Australia has for many years sought to help the Burmese people through a program of humanitarian assistance targeting the most vulnerable. This program, now worth nearly $30 million in 2009-10, assists with fighting infectious diseases such as avian influenza, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; provides food aid and agricultural expertise to alleviate rural poverty; protects displaced people; and supports children to attend and remain in primary school.

ASEAN, through its humanitarian work in Burma after Cyclone Nargis, has been vital in facilitating assistance from Australia and members of the international community to the Burmese people. Common membership of regional organisations also allows us at ministerial level to directly advocate democratic reform and national reconciliation—as I did, for example, when I met my counterpart Burmese Foreign Minister Win during the ASEAN-related meetings in Thailand last year.

On 12 August last year I addressed the House on Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction on spurious charges, leading to her ongoing house arrest. I set out then that Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence effectively removed the prospect of her participation in any proposed 2010 elections and would detract from the credibility of those elections. Since that time, there have been a number of important developments both within Burma and in the international community’s approach to Burma. On 17 September last year the Burmese authorities released 128 political prisoners in an amnesty. This was a welcome, tentative step in the right direction. Repression, however, continues. On 31 December, 15 activists were sentenced to up to 71 years imprisonment each. There regrettably remain close to 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Australia again calls on Burma’s authorities to release them and allow them to participate fully and freely in the upcoming elections.

In September 2009, in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, I joined 10 other foreign ministers and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a ministerial level meeting of the Secretary-General’s Group of Friends on Myanmar. The participation in this meeting was evidence both of the international community’s desire to see progress in Burma and of its willingness to both work together and with the Secretary-General towards this end. At the meeting, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon identified three areas for future unity of purpose and action: first, to urge Burma to work with the United Nations to ensure an inclusive process of dialogue and create the conditions for credible elections; second, to uphold the role of the United Nations in Burma; and, third, to signal the international community’s willingness to help the people of Burma, but noting that Burma’s military regime needed to respond to international concerns in order for this to occur.

My visit to New York for the General Assembly coincided with the announcement of the United States policy review on Burma. The United States administration concluded that a sanctions only policy to isolate Burma’s military has not worked and that future US policy would combine engagement, appropriate sanctions and humanitarian assistance. US Secretary of State Clinton said that any debate that pits sanctions against engagement created a false choice, and that the international community would need to employ both of these tools. Australia has welcomed this approach, as has the international community generally.

As to developments within Burma, on 25 September last year Aung San Suu Kyi wrote to Senior General Than Shwe offering to work with the Burmese authorities on the withdrawal of international sanctions, and asking to meet representatives of the European Union, the United States and Australia. The fact that Australia was one of these three is of course significant and reflects Australia’s longstanding interest and friendship of the Burmese people. The Burmese authorities agreed to this request.

On 9 October 2009 Australia’s charge d’affaires, together with the UK ambassador and the US charge d’affaires, met Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. The meeting was the first opportunity for a substantive discussion between an Australian representative and Aung San Suu Kyi since February 2003. Australia’s charge d’affaires conveyed a message from the Prime Minister which expressed the support of the Australian government and the people of Australia for Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggle for democracy in Burma. This was warmly welcomed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Australia welcomed the subsequent visit to Burma in early November last year by United States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and the meetings he held with the Burmese authorities, with Aung San Suu Kyi and with representatives of a number of ethnic minorities. Aung San Suu Kyi wrote further to Senior General Than Shwe on 11 November 2009 requesting contact with her party’s central executive committee. In response to her request, she was permitted to meet three of the central executive committee’s elders, including Chairman U Aung Shwe, on 16 December 2009. Australia hopes that a meeting with the full executive will take place soon.

This is the first substantial contact which Aung San Suu Kyi has had with the leadership of the National League for Democracy since 2007, and is warmly welcomed by the Australian government as essential to democratic and political progress in Burma. Australia hopes these initial engagements between Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese authorities and the international community are the beginning of a process of genuine dialogue.


The Burmese authorities have embarked on the so-called ‘roadmap to democracy’, a strictly controlled process of potential political change. It was a matter of great regret that they pushed ahead with a constitutional referendum, the fourth step in their road map, in the midst of the disaster of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. That referendum was a regrettable sham. Not surprisingly, political parties in Burma, including the National League for Democracy, and parties representing ethnic groups, are carefully considering whether to participate in the 2010 elections.

Burma’s authorities have an opportunity to engage the people, to ensure the full and free participation in the elections of the Burmese opposition, nascent political parties, and ethnic groups. For Burma’s longer term stability and security, the coming political process needs to address the concerns of the country’s diverse ethnic minority groups. While, of course, given the history of these matters, there are longstanding reservations, Australia will not prejudge the process and the outcome of these elections. Australia urges Burma’s authorities to seize this opportunity to genuinely move their country forward.

Development Assistance

Australia has long provided humanitarian assistance to Burma. In the 2009-10 budget, the government allocated nearly $30 million in humanitarian assistance, a significant increase in base funding over the previous year. This will help address the pressing needs of the Burmese people. Half of Burma’s almost 50 million people live in extreme poverty. Child mortality rates are among the highest in the world. Decades of military rule have eroded civil society and civilian institutions. Skills have been lost and infrastructure has deteriorated.

At some stage into the future, Burma will have a civilian government, which will face great challenges. At some stage into the future, the regional and international community will be asked to help in the rebuilding of Burma’s economic and social structures. Australia’s view therefore is that the international community help prepare Burma for the future. Burma’s capacity cannot be allowed to completely atrophy to the ultimate disadvantage and cost of its people. The international community needs to start the rebuilding now. This is not a reward for Burma’s military, but a recognition of the immense task faced by current and future generations of Burmese.

At around $4 per head per annum, international aid to Burma is less than a 10th of that received by Cambodia and a 16th of that received by Laos. Australia will accordingly increase its assistance to Burma over the next three years to around $50 million annually, a 40 per cent increase. Alleviating humanitarian needs will remain an important goal and focus of this expenditure. But the government has decided that Australia’s program will also include capacity-building elements, addressing the long-term challenges facing the Burmese people. This will involve carefully targeted interaction in areas of great need like health, education and agriculture.

Our assistance will continue to be delivered in partnership with international organisations, such as United Nations agencies, ASEAN, other donor nations and non-government organisations. We will expand existing initiatives in basic health care, including child and maternal health. We will work to improve the delivery of basic health services by equipping health clinics, training nurses, healthcare staff and administrators and providing better community health education and information. At the village level, we will assist primary healthcare workers, including midwives, with critical training and medical supplies to help arrest the decline in health outcomes for vulnerable and isolated people.

We will continue to support the delivery of vital treatment, prevention and screening services for HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, including through the Three Diseases Fund supported by Australia, the European Commission, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The fund aims to reduce these three diseases in Burma. We will also address critical water, sanitation and hygiene needs through:

  • the construction and rehabilitation of ponds and wells;
  • building latrines for community schools and rural health centres; and
  • working to provide equitable access to clean water.

In 2008-09 Australia’s assistance contributed to the basic education of over 400,000 children in Burma. We will increase our support to enable more poor and disadvantaged children to go to primary school. Australian assistance will improve teaching and mentoring skills, both in the classroom and at home. Working closely with United Nations agencies, non-government organisations and other donors, we will support training programs for early childhood development workers, primary teachers and township education officials.

We will also continue to support vulnerable communities in the Irrawaddy Delta to restore their crop and fishing businesses, and in other areas of protracted need such as northern Rakhine State where the situation of the Rohingyas is very dire. Australia will provide $20 million over the next four years to assist poor communities in Burma to:

  • improve access to credit, seeds, and tools;
  • provide training in small enterprise;
  • help farmers diversify their production and gain access to markets.

I have also asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AusAID to explore a scholarship scheme for Burma. Australia will liaise with partners such as the European Union, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States, all of whom have scholarship schemes for Burma, to learn from their experience. It is proposed that a new scholarship scheme will target Burmese with the potential to build civil society and improve service delivery, including in health, education and agriculture. As a start, 10 postgraduate scholarships and short-term professional development placements will be made available, beginning in 2010-11. We will work with the UN to carefully identify suitable candidates.

This assistance will be in addition to Australia’s significant contribution for relief and recovery efforts following Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Australia’s post-Nargis assistance continues to be delivered through effective and trusted aid partners such as the United Nations and Australian NGOs and includes:

  • agricultural inputs to help farmers restore their crops and livestock;
  • helping fishermen by providing nets and repairing boats;
  • repairing over 1,200 damaged schools and providing books and materials for over 350,000 children;
  • reducing disease risk by constructing 50,000 latrines and providing a million mosquito nets; and
  • supplies and shelter for vulnerable communities.

Burma is a difficult operating environment, but the collective experience in Burma over many years shows we can deliver assistance effectively to improve the lives of ordinary Burmese citizens without benefiting the military authorities.

Until we see significant change from Burma’s authorities, the Australian government will maintain a policy of targeted financial sanctions. We agree with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s, observation that to lift sanctions now would send the wrong signal. However, an expansion of sanctions at this time would send a confusing signal. In view of the nascent discussions between the authorities and Aung San Suu Kyi, I have decided that sanctions should not be expanded at this time. As a result, the sanctions list I announced in October 2008 will remain in operation for the present.


I earlier referred to my discussions on Burma in New York in September 2009. These discussions again revealed the region’s and the international community’s great frustration with the Burmese authorities’ treatment of the political opposition, their self-imposed isolation, and the circumstances of the Burmese people. My discussions also revealed that the international community is increasingly prepared to draw on a wide range of diplomatic tools, including both sanctions and engagement, to press for change in Burma. Neither Australia nor the international community however should have any illusions that progress in Burma will be quick or easy.

Australia will continue to work closely with ASEAN and its member countries, including by continuing to support ASEAN’s much-needed humanitarian efforts in Burma. We will cooperate closely with the United States as it pursues greater engagement with Burma, and with other major donors like the United Kingdom to ensure our combined assistance does the greatest amount of good for the Burmese people. We will also continue to support the work of the United Nations and the Secretary-General.

We endorse UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon’s, call for the international community to support UN efforts to promote respect for human rights, inclusive political dialogue and development in Burma. Australia strongly supported the role of Ibrahim Gambari as the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on Burma. His term concluded at the beginning of this year, and we look forward to working closely with his successor.


Australia and the international community stand ready to assist Burma. But it is not a one-way street. Australia urges the Burmese authorities to respond in good faith both to international engagement and to Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent approach to it on sanctions and on dialogue. In moving towards dialogue and genuine national reconciliation, Burma’s authorities can end their isolation.

Australia has always considered the Burmese people our friends. When Cyclone Nargis struck, Australia and Australians responded generously, despite our political differences with the Burmese authorities. That was the right decision then, and it is the right decision now, together with the international community, to do more for the long-term future of Burma’s people.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Curtin and Deputy Leader of the Opposition to speak for 19 minutes.

Leave granted.


That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Ms J. Bishop (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) speaking in reply to the ministerial statement for a period not exceeding 19 minutes.

Question agreed to.