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Challenging Times for Myanmar

Welcome Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to the 2015 Myanmar/Burma Update, Making Sense of Conflict, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, Canberra, 5 June 2015

Your Excellency U Khin Aung Myint, Speaker of the Amyotha Hluttaw
Your Excellency U Min Thein, Ambassador of Myanmar to Australia
U Hyket Nting Nan, Member of the Myanmar Parliament from the Amyotha Hluttaw]
Dr Min Zaw Oo,Director of Ceasefire Negotiation and Implementation at the Myanmar Peace Centre
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman,

I warmly welcome you all to the Australian National University and to the 2015 Myanmar Update. This event continues a long history of research and expert policy engagement with Myanmar by ANU. The first of these events, then the Burma Update, was held in 1990 and they have been held every 18 to 24 months since. The Updates bring together seasoned and emerging researchers from around Australia and across Asia. Ours is one of only two such ongoing conferences worldwide, the only one to have regular research publication outputs, and we are very proud to be hosting it.

This year’s Update comes at a crucial time for Myanmar. The country is coming to the end of its first five-years with a new parliament, one that came into being after more than two decades of military rule. With general elections planned for November this year, the country’s people are genuinely excited for Myanmar’s future. The elections represent a new chapter in the progress of a country that has long been in turmoil. Yet there is uncertainty about what lies ahead, and still a huge array of challenges facing the country – political and constitutional, security, communal and social, and economic – all of which will be comprehensively addressed over the next two days.

While, unlike so many of you here, I cannot for a moment pretend to be a specialist on Burma/Myanmar, I personally have long had a deep affection and concern for its people, have been very conscious of those many challenges, and have long nurtured the hope that they can be peacefully and sustainably overcome.

I first visited the country, albeit too briefly, during my student travelling days in the ‘60s, and became enchanted with its people, and culture and landscape. In my later professional life Burma/Myanmar was often in the forefront of my concern when I was Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996, and President of the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009.  And most recently I had the pleasure of a visit there in October last year, primarily to discuss nuclear policy issues, in which I was privileged to have good discussions in Nay Pyi Taw with the President, Foreign Minister, Science Minister, Speaker of the Lower House and senior Opposition NLD members.

I can’t pretend that my relations with the country’s leaders were always as encouraging as they have been in recent times. 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, as we all did, 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 military regime – then stuck in its isolationist ways – seemed to take any notice, should not admit the country to full membership unless it changed its ways, and was deeply frustrated 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 it took for country’s military leaders to agree 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 leaders 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 deep sense of isolation, 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, as Foreign Minister, but not finding any support for it at all in Europe and North America.  And that experience was largely repeated when I became head of the International Crisis Group (as your panellist Morten Pedersen, who was our representative in-country at the time, will well remember). Through most of the first decade of this century we found ourselves still very much 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.

Now, since 2011 things have changed at last, under the leadership of Thein Sein and with the significant degree of rapprochement he has achieved with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  Hopes for the future – economically, and in democracy and human rights terms – are now very much brighter than they have been for two decades.

But we cannot over-gild the lily in this respect, and I know that the participants in this conference won’t. There are a number of major challenges still to be met, and a number of questions that – in the eyes of much of the rest of the world – still cry out to be answered, not only by the government but in some important cases the opposition as well.  They include:

  • What is to be lost, compared to what would be gained in international reputation, by Myanmar in ending its age-old refusal to treat the Rohingya people, even those whose families have been living in Myanmar for generations, as citizens, or even allow them to be described as Rohingya?
  • Has enough been done, in both word and deed, to make clear beyond doubt the Burmese political elite’s intolerance of Buddhist on Muslim communal violence, which has been a recurring phenomenon not only in
    Rakhine state but in other parts of the country?
  • In relation to the borderland minorities, despite the admirable and largely successful efforts to negotiate ceasefire agreements, is there really enough being done to wind back the pervasive militarization of frontier regions, to remove the structural and habitual impediments to holding the military and paramilitaries accountable for their actions, and provide institutional means of redressing the grievances of affected populations?  
  • What would be lost domestically, as compared to what would be gained internationally, by bringing forward constitutional reforms that would complete – and be universally seen to be completing – the democratization process, including removing the impediment to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi being elected President or Vice-President?

I have put most of these questions directly to President Thein Sein and his ministers. And I have put them to NLD leaders as well where they have been pertinent, as is certainly the case with respect to the positions of Daw Suu and her party on the issues of Rohingya discrimination, communal violence and the handling borderland conflicts, which have left much to be desired.

And I think it is important to go on putting these questions – and others like them, relating for example to the sincerity of commitment to the rule of law and genuine freedom of expression – at conferences like this, and in exchanges anywhere with Burmese policymakers and those who influence them. Compared with just a few years ago the country has made breathtaking strides toward peace, freedom, stability and prosperity, but that should not allow anyone with a genuine affection for Myanmar – inside or outside the country – to downplay the need for quite a few more such strides to be taken if its long-term good health is to be assured.


Over the next two days of discussions, this Update, building on its 2013 predecessor here at ANU and an event held in Myanmar by ANU in March last year, will address all the challenges the country is confronting – and particularly those with a continuing conflict dimension to them – from a variety of angles, bringing together the perspectives both of those working on the ground and those studying the country from abroad.

The relationship between Myanmar and ANU is an important and ever-growing one, and we look forward to these discussions continuing on an ongoing basis as the situation continues to evolve – and, hopefully, the optimists about Myanmar’s future are proved right.

We are privileged to have today as our keynote speaker someone right at the heart of contemporary government and politics in Myanmar.  His Excellency U Khin Aung Myint [Oo Kin Ong Mint] is Speaker of the Amyotha Hluttaw [Ar myo thar lutt taw], the House of Nationalities, or Upper House, of the Union Parliament in Myanmar and has held this position since 2011. He also served as the Speaker of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw [Pyi Taung Su lutt taw], the Union Parliament, for the first 30 months of his five-year term.

After starting his career with the Ministry of Defence in 1965, he has served Burma and Myanmar in various positions for 50 years. Among these positions he has been a Major General in the Myanmar Defence Services, Director of Public Relations and Psychological Warfare (a fascinating combination!) in the Ministry of Defence,  and Minister of Culture from 2006 to 2010 This is his second visit to Australia, but his first to ANU, and we very warmly welcome him to our national campus.

I declare officially open the 2015 Myanmar Update and welcome His Excellency U Khin Aung Myint [Oo Kin Ong Mint] to the stage.