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Helping Burma/Myanmar

Welcome remarks by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to the Australia-Myanmar Institute Inaugural Conference, Melbourne Town Hall, 18 March 2013

It is a pleasure to add a few words of welcome of my own to participants in this foundation conference of the Australia-Myanmar Institute. 

Burma/Myanmar has been one of those countries at the forefront of my concern for many years, as foreign minister until 1996, and then for a decade as head of the International Crisis Group.

I had visited the country, albeit too briefly, during my student travelling days in the 60s, and was enchanted with its people, and culture and landscape. I was Foreign Minister when the old regime collapsed in 1988 and when students, monks and so many ordinary people went out in the streets calling for democracy. I saw what happened next – and deeply felt the agony and frustration of the country’s people when so much went wrong, and stayed wrong, for twenty more years of repression and despair.

I argued for years that ASEAN, which was the only external organisation of which the regime – stuck in its isolationist ways – seemed to take any notice, should not admit the country to full membership unless it changed its ways, and almost wept with frustration when that pass was sold in 1997.

I felt Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s agony when her husband Michael Aris – whom I knew at Oxford – was dying in 1999 and the regime made clear that if she left the country to see him she would not be allowed back.

When the devastating Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008, killing many thousands and threatening the lives of many thousands more, I shared the incredulity of the rest of the world about how long the generals dragged their feet before agreeing to international help.

But almost from the beginning, for all these frustrations and setbacks and continuing violations of basic human rights and democratic principles, I felt that the door should be kept open and processes identified that would encourage the country’s rulers to open their eyes to what was making their next door neighbours move forward so fast while they stagnated - in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, India and Bangladesh.

As an old anti-apartheid campaigner, I initially felt I should wash my mouth out if I ever let the expression “constructive engagement” escape my lips.  But as the years wore on it became more and more obvious that an approach based solely on piling on the sanctions, and compounding the regime’s isolationist sense of intransigence, was going nowhere very fast, and that ways should be found of making more contact  not only with non-governmental organizations and citizens, but with the military government itself – and making clear that progressive movement on key issues would be progressively rewarded.

I remember floating this kind of approach as far back as 1992, speaking as Foreign Minister at a seminar held at Griffith University, and then a couple of years later identifying some key benchmarks – including release of political prisoners, and peaceful reconciliation with the ethnic minorities – which could be used to gauge performance and deliver an appropriate international response.

But progress was very slow, and when I was with the International Crisis Group through the decade of the noughties I found ourselves (as your panellist Morton Pedersen, who was our representative in-country at the time, will well remember) still considerably ahead of the curve as we argued, much to the distaste of many of our friends in the US in particular, that the hard-line Western sanctions policy was simply counterproductive to achieving the necessary political change, and should be recalibrated.

But things have now changed at last, under the leadership of Thein Sein  and with his rapprochement with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and hopes for the future – economically, and in democracy and human rights terms – are now very much brighter than they have been for two decades.

I don’t think we should over-gild the lily in this respect. I, for one, along with many others in the UN and elsewhere, remain acutely concerned at the continuing tensions that exist with non-Burman ethnic minorities in various parts of the country, and above all with the terrible situation of the Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine State who continue to be subject to killing and forced displacement – and who, despite having lived in the country for generations – are still regarded by the military, and Daw Suu, as Bangladeshi immigrants.

But these issues apart, the news has been good and long-awaited, and your work in the Australia-Myanmar Institute today, is perfectly poised now to build on the hopes for the country’s future we all share, and help it meet the immense challenges which lie ahead  as an intense reform program comes up against the constraints of a still exceedingly underdeveloped governance structure.

Your six pillars of concentration: Politics and Governance, Economy and Business, Law, Health, Education and Heritage and the Environment seem a strong base from which to work, especially as you have set gender, diversity and reconciliation as strong underpinnings for each pillar.

I am very impressed to see that so many prominent figures from Australian universities have come to Melbourne for the event.  This is the first time I can recall such a truly collaborative purpose for an institute of this type, and I hope the different universities, and the government agencies, watch your progress with care and provide institutional support when the time is ripe.

I am also pleased to see the way the concerns of business have been integrated into the Conference.  It is very important to ensure that the UN Global Compact’s Principles for Social Investment are part of investment planning, and that governments back the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises as they consider requests for support by companies wishing to enter the Myanmar market. 

Burma/Myanmar simply isn’t equipped to handle the onrush of interest which the Government’s reform program has stimulated.  It is very good to know that AMI plans to help meet these capacity needs, and to do so in partnership with a parallel entity in Yangon. 

I very strongly support the importance of ensuring that the country’s needs are identified in-country, not by people sitting around conference tables thousands of kilometres away.  But we all also recognise that it is vital that the identification of need is done by people who are well-trained for this responsibility, and who are in touch with needs as expressed at the community level in the country.

These are big challenges, and they are beyond the resources of any single Australian institution.  I wish AMI well and trust that the collaboration it plans – that will be kick-started at this conference – will bring us together in Australia on an ongoing basis in support of the needs of the people of that wonderful country.