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Factba.se: Australia DFAT Country Briefs - Myanmar


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Australia has diplomatic relations with Burma. The Australian Government maintains an embassy in the former capital and commercial centre of Rangoon (the capital is Nay Pyi Taw). Burma maintains an embassy in Canberra.

Australia's relations with Burma have been overshadowed and constrained by the actions of Burma's government. Australia has long held grave concerns about the the human rights and political situation in Burma. Australia's Ambassador to Burma raises these issues regularly with Burmese ministers and officials, as does the Australian Government with the Burmese Embassy in Canberra.

Then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Smith, delivered a Ministerial Statement on Burma (http://foreignminister.gov.au/speeches/2010/100208_burma_statement.html) in Parliament on 8 February 2010 and further remarks in Parliament (http://foreignminister.gov.au/transcripts/2010/100316_qwn_burma.html) on 16 March 2010. The statement addressed developments in Burma, Australia's policy approach to Burma, the expansion of Australia's development assistance for the Burmese people, and Australia's stance on sanctions.

Mr Rudd, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, issued a statement on Burma (http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2010/kr_mr_101031.html) on 31 October 2010, ahead of the country's 7 November elections. Mr Rudd and Prime Minister Gillard issued a joint statement on 14 November 2010 (http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2010/kr_mr_101114.html) following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the first visit to Burma by an Australian Minister since 2002, Mr Rudd visited the country from 30 June to 2 July 2011. The visit provided Mr Rudd with an opportunity to meet with members of the new Burmese Government; aid organizations and NGOs; and democratic and ethnic politicians, including Aung San Suu Kyi. In his meetings with the Burmese Government, Mr Rudd raised Australia's long-standing concerns about human rights and democracy in Burma; economic development and poverty alleviation; and Burma's role in the region. He called for the release of the over 2,000 political prisoners still in detention in Burma and urged the Government to ensure the political freedom and security of Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic and ethnic politicians. Mr Rudd's visit was also an opportunity to discuss Australia's expanding aid program and to seek views on how best the Australian Government can help lift the Burmese people out of poverty. Mr Rudd spoke to the media on 2 July about his visit (http://foreignminister.gov.au/transcripts/2011/kr_tr_110702_doorstop.html).

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In 1989, the Burmese authorities changed the official name of the country in English from Burma to Myanmar (in full, The Union of Myanmar). In 2010 the name was changed again to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. A number of Burmese opposition political parties and groups do not recognise the changes and continue to refer to the country in English as Burma.

Myanmar is used by international organisations of which it is a member, such as the United Nations (UN), the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Practice by countries varies.

The Australian Government refers to the country as Burma. The Australian Government uses Myanmar when communicating directly with Burmese officials and in multilateral contexts, as appropriate.

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Following the Burmese authorities' crackdown on peaceful protests in September 2007, on 24 October 2007 Australia implemented bilateral financial sanctions under the Banking (Foreign Exchange) Regulations 1959 targeted against members of the Burmese regime and their associates and supporters. Under these sanctions, transactions involving the transfer of funds or payments to, by the order of, or on behalf of specified Burmese regime figures and supporters are prohibited without the specific approval of the Reserve Bank of Australia.

A full list of individuals subject to Australia's financial sanctions (http://www.rba.gov.au/mkt-operations/fin-sanctions/index.html) is available at the Reserve Bank of Australia's website.

Australia also maintains targeted travel restrictions against senior regime figures, their associates and supporters.

Australia has a longstanding ban on defence exports to Burma.

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Australia has consistently urged the Burmese authorities to start a process of genuine political reform and national reconciliation. The Australian Government has frequently made bilateral representations to Burma on Australia's concerns about lack of political progress and human rights practices. Australia's Ambassador to Burma has made strong representations to the Burmese authorities over the trial and conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi. Australia's former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Stephen Smith, used meetings with Burmese Minister for Foreign Affairs, U Nyan Win, to express Australia's concerns.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Burma from 3-4 July 2009 to urge the Burmese authorities to engage in political reform and national reconciliation. Australia supported his visit. At the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, Australia has consistently supported firm resolutions on human rights in Burma.

Australia supports the efforts of the HRC's Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana. Mr Quintana has visited Burma three times since his appointment in 2008, and regularly reports to the UN General Assembly and the HRC on his findings. His mandate as Special Rapporteur was renewed by a HRC resolution in March 2011, which Australia co-sponsored.

Forced labour practices in Burma have been a longstanding and serious concern. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has called on Burma to eliminate the practice of forced labour for over 40 years. A mechanism to investigate complaints of forced labour in Burma was finally agreed between the ILO and the authorities in February 2007 and has since then been extended. Australia and New Zealand regularly deliver joint statements at ILO sessions. We continue to call on the Burmese authorities to do more to eradicate forced labour practices and the recruitment of minors into the military and to take all possible steps to support the full mandate of the ILO.

On 7 November 2010 Burma held its first elections in two decades. Australia noted our deep concerns about the fundamentally flawed election process and patently unfair election laws. We also noted that we respect the decision of those democrats in Burma who chose to contest the poll, as we do those who chose not to participate.

Australia warmly welcomed the release of Aung San Suu Kyi (http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2010/kr_mr_101114.html) on 13 November 2010. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Rudd, spoke with Aung San Suu Kyi on 15 November. He reiterated Australia's commitment to helping the Burmese people in their struggle for democracy and welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi's dedication to inclusive dialogue and reconciliation in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi's release provides the Burmese authorities with an opportunity to involve her and all of Burma's political and ethnic groups in a process of genuine dialogue and national reconciliation.

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Australia has for many years sought to help the Burmese people through a program of humanitarian assistance targeting Burma's poor and most vulnerable. Mr Smith, then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced on 8 February 2010 that this support would be increased. An expanded Australian program (http://foreignminister.gov.au/speeches/2010/100208_burma_statement.html) would also include a greater focus on building the capacity of Burmese people and institutions, including in the areas of health, education and agriculture, to help prepare Burma for the future and move towards long-term poverty reduction. Our assistance to Burma has increased by 65 per cent since 2009-10, jumping from $29.1 million to $47.6 million in 2011-12.

For more information on Australia's program of assistance see the AusAID website on Burma (http://www.ausaid.gov.au/country/country.cfm?CountryID=8493641&Region=EastAsia&CFID=6244630&CFTOKEN=99241906) .

In 2009 Australia increased its assistance to Burma's Rohingya minority in Rakhine State (http://www.ausaid.gov.au/country/country.cfm?CountryID=8493641&Region=EastAsia). Australia has also increased its assistance through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh and South-East Asia.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) conducts a small program in Burma focused on increasing food security and farmer livelihoods through enhanced legume cultivation.

Cyclone Nargis struck Burma on 2-3 May 2008 causing massive destruction. The Irrawaddy Delta south-west of Rangoon was worst hit and Rangoon was also affected. The United Nations estimated the death toll at over 140,000, with a further 2.4 million people severely affected by the cyclone (by losing their homes, or livelihoods, or access to clean water, food, medicine and other basic services).

On 25 May 2008, Burma, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the UN co-hosted an International Pledging Conference in Rangoon. Australia was represented by the then-Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, Mr Bob McMullan. ASEAN, the UN and Burma formed the Tripartite Core Group to coordinate international disaster assistance. The Tripartite Core Group's mandate expired in July 2010.

On 25 November 2009, the ASEAN Post Nargis and Regional Partnerships Conference was held in Bangkok. Australia committed $15 million in humanitarian assistance (http://www.ausaid.gov.au/media/release.cfm?BC=Media&ID=414_5332_3037_6065_4608) for the Burmese people still suffering from the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.

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Australia has a regional program of assistance to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member. Australia's regional program has provided assistance to address significant trans-boundary development issues such as HIV/AIDS, people trafficking, illicit drugs and transnational crime.

To protect Australia's interests against transnational crime, the Australian Federal Police has a limited program of cooperation with the Burmese police focused on counter-narcotics, as well as countering child-sex tourism and trafficking in persons. Burma is the second biggest source of heroin globally and is a significant producer of amphetamine-type stimulants.

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The Australian Government does not impose general trade and investment sanctions on Burma. We have maintained a ban on defence exports to Burma since 1991.

Australia's trade with Burma is relatively low. In 2010, Australian merchandise imports from Burma totalled $16 million. For the same period, Australian merchandise exports to Burma amounted to $81 million. The majority of two-way trade was in wheat, seafood products and other food stuffs.

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Burma gained its independence from Great Britain in 1948. Burma has been ruled by the military since a 1962 coup d'├ętat led by General Ne Win.

In August 1988, a series of student-led protests grew into mass demonstrations against the military government. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators, and by October 1988 around 3,000 protesters had been killed. In September 1988 a faction within the military conducted another coup d'├ętat against the existing military regime, bringing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to power.

The SLORC agreed to hold an election in May 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won almost 60 per cent of valid votes and 80 per cent of the seats, despite the arrest and detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD's General Secretary, in 1989 while campaigning. After the election the SLORC imposed martial law and refused to validate the election result. The authorities detained members of the NLD and other perceived political opponents. It prevented the National Assembly from convening.

In 1992, Senior General Than Shwe became Chairman of the SLORC. In 1997, the SLORC was dissolved and replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), though the senior leadership remained largely unchanged.

In 1992, the Burmese authorities began the National Convention process to draft a new constitution. Some representatives elected in 1990 and representatives of minority ethnic groups participated, as well as delegates picked by the authorities. In July 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi was released and some political activity by the NLD was permitted. But in 1996 the NLD withdrew from the National Convention, claiming its views were being ignored and proceedings were undemocratic. The convention process stalled. Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members were again variously detained, held under house arrest, or imprisoned. Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in 2002, was detained again in 2003 after a convoy she was travelling in was violently attacked by regime-aligned groups near Depayin in northern Burma.

In 2003, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt outlined a 'Roadmap to Democracy' involving seven stages. These were: the convening of the National Convention; taking the necessary steps to establish a democracy after the National Convention is concluded; the drafting of a constitution based on the principles laid down by the National Convention; a national referendum to approve the redrafted constitution; holding free and fair elections for a Parliament; convening of Parliament; and the building of a modern, developed and democratic nation by leaders elected by the Parliament.

The National Convention was reconvened in 2004 with delegates hand-picked by the authorities. A number of political parties, including the NLD and parties representing some ethnic minorities, boycotted the convention. Later in 2004, Khin Nyunt was sacked as Prime Minister and chief of military intelligence and convicted on bribery and corruption charges. From 2004 to 2007 five sessions of the Convention were held and the authorities closed the Convention on 4 September 2007. The authorities announced that detailed principles were in place for a new charter and appointed a committee to work on drafting a new constitution.

In 2005 the Burmese authorities moved the capital from Rangoon to an area near Pyinmana since renamed Nay Pyi Taw.

Protests in September 2007

In August 2007 the authorities arrested organisers of a peaceful public protest against a sudden hike in fuel prices. Buddhist monks led further protests against the fuel price hikes and deteriorating standards of living throughout the country. By September these had evolved into mass protests in Rangoon and some other cities, and the concerns raised by protesters broadened into a wider criticism of the authorities.

On 27 September, the authorities violently suppressed the protests. At least 30 people were killed on that day, and at least a further 70 died in detention in the days following. Over several weeks the authorities followed up with beatings and raids on monasteries. Thousands were arrested, and while most were soon released, some have joined an estimated 2,000 long-term political prisoners. In November 2008, the authorities handed down harsh prison sentences to over 200 individuals for political crimes. In September 2009, 128 political prisoners were released as part of a wider prisoner amnesty.

The Roadmap to Democracy and the 2010 elections

In February 2008 the Burmese authorities announced that they would hold a constitutional referendum in May 2008 and elections in 2010. The text of the proposed constitution, based on the National Convention process, was released in April 2008.

The referendum was held on 10 May 2008 (postponed in Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta until 24 May because of the impact of Cyclone Nargis). Criticism of the referendum or the text of the constitution was illegal in the lead-up to the vote. Regime-affiliated groups conducted a campaign of violence and intimidation against those advocating a 'no' vote. There was no independent scrutiny of the counting process. In late May the authorities announced that 92 per cent of eligible voters had approved the constitution.

Between 9 and 12 March 2010, the Burmese authorities published five electoral laws in anticipation of national and regional elections this year. In response to the restrictive nature of the laws, the NLD decided not to seek re-registration in order to contest the elections. Some 37 political parties, including some not aligned with the authorities, registered to contest. Mr Rudd, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, issued a statement on Burma on 31 October 2010 (http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2010/kr_mr_101031.html) , in the lead up to the poll.

On 7 November 2010 Burma held its first elections in 20 years. The elections fell well short of democratic norms. The authorities dissolved 11 political parties ahead of the elections, denied registration to three ethnic minority parties, cancelled voting in a number of constituencies and did not allow independent election observers or foreign media to cover the elections. The extensive use of coerced or fraudulent advance voting was reported to have fundamentally changed the election results, further undermining the elections' credibility. According to Burma's Election Commission, the regime's party, the USDP, won 76 per cent of seats overall, including 79 per cent of Lower House seats, 77 per cent of Upper House seats and 75 per cent of seats in the regional assemblies. Democratic and independent ethnic parties won far less seats than expected.

In line with the 2008 constitution, the elections created a range of new institutions: a presidential system; two houses of parliament and 14 regional governments and assemblies. The new parliaments and assemblies, in which the military is automatically allocated 25 per cent of seats, sat for the first time on 31 January 2011. On 30 March 2011, President Thein Sein, and Vice Presidents Tin Aung Myint and Sai Mauk Kham, were sworn into office. On the same day, Burmese state media reported the disbanding of the State Peace and Development Council which, with its previous incarnation, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, had ruled Burma by military decree since 1988.

Legal status of Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, without conditions, on 13 November 2010. Large crowds gathered outside her house and heard her deliver a short speech, and the following day she gave a longer speech at the NLD Headquarters in which she told her supporters 'not to give up hope'. In a 14 November meeting with the diplomatic corps, she thanked the international community for its support and said she had not been mistreated while under detention. Australia warmly welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi's release (http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2010/kr_mr_101114.html) .

Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the NLD, was dissolved in the lead up to Burma's 7 November 2010 elections. On 28 January 2011, Burma's Supreme Court rejected NLD's appeal against its dissolution.

International processes on Burma's political situation

Under a mandate from the United Nations General Assembly, the Secretary-General is charged with using his good offices to pursue discussions on human rights and the restoration of democracy with the government and the people of Burma. The Australian Government supports the Secretary-General's good offices role on Burma. Australia participates, along with 13 other countries, in the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar.

The Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, visited Burma on 3-4 July 2009 and met Burmese leader Senior General Than Shwe, but was refused a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. Mr Ibrahim Gambari was the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Burma from May 2007 to January 2010. The UN's Chef de Cabinet, Vijay Nambiar, has been appointed interim Special Advisor and has visited Burma a number of times, most recently in May 2011.

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Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia. In 2010 it ranked 132nd out of 169 states in the Human Development Index, lagging behind all of its ASEAN neighbours in indicators for poverty, health and education. According to the IMF, in 2010 Burma's GDP was US$43 billion and GDP per capita was US$702. An estimated quarter of the Burmese population of 50-60 million people live in poverty. Seventy per cent of the population are subsistence level farmers, while conditions for most of Burma's city dwellers remain dire. The strong popular reaction to the increase in fuel prices announced by the authorities in August 2007 which led to subsequent mass protests reflected this hardship.

Burmese Government spending priorities are skewed towards the military and large-scale infrastructure to the detriment of provision of basic services such as health and education. The size of the black economy in Burma limits the ability of the government to raise tax revenues, and tax evasion is widespread. Exchange rate management is poor, with the official exchange rate of the kyat grossly overvalued. Burma's official statistics are unreliable.

Burma's resource wealth and young labour force should point to medium to high growth rates — the IMF predicts a 5.5 per cent growth rate in 2011. But growth has often been achieved through short-term measures such as FDI inflows into extractive sectors, as opposed to sustainable economic investment. For the country to reap the rewards of its resources and labour market, economic reform is vital, including unifying the exchange rate and reforming the banking and taxation systems.

In his inauguration speech of 20 March 2011, President Thein Sein acknowledged the socio-economic challenges facing Burma and the need for reform in the economy, education, health and governance. In April 2011 the Government appointed three economic advisers. The following month, the Government held a National Workshop on Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation. It is too early to tell whether the Government will meet its economic reform promises.

Lack of progress towards political and economic reform, poor economic performance, unclear economic policies and international sanctions and consumer boycotts have limited foreign investment in Burma. Corruption is a major concern. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank do not have lending programs in Burma, in part because of its arrears on previous loans.

Published estimates of Burma's foreign trade are unreliable due to the size of the black market and border trade. Statistics indicate, however, that Burma's main trading partners are regional, namely China, Thailand, Singapore and India. Most foreign investment is in the oil and gas and electricity sectors.

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Last Updated: July 2011

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