Myanmar leader hails closer Australia ties, says nation's challenges have no modern parallel

CANBERRA, Australia – Myanmar President Thein Sein welcomed closer ties with Australia on Monday as he asked for continued support through his country’s transition to “peace, democracy and prosperity,” a mission that he said “has no parallel in modern times.”

The first Myanmar leader to visit Australia since 1974, Thein Sein joined Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard for a news conference where she announced it will restore limited military co-operation and increase business ties with the Southeast Asian country, which ended five decades of military rule in 2011.

Thein Sein asked for Australian understanding about the political challenges facing his resource-rich but impoverished country.

“I hope you will appreciate that what we are undertaking has no parallel in modern times,” Thein Sein said through an interpreter at Australia’s Parliament House.

“It is not just a single transition, but three together. It’s a transition from military rule to democratic rule, from 60 years of armed conflict to peace and from a centrally controlled and isolated economy to one that can end poverty and create real opportunities for all our people.”

Thein Sein’s government replaced the military junta after 2010 elections that were widely regarded as neither free nor fair, but he has surprised much of the world with broad reforms that include freeing political prisoners and lifting restrictions on freedom of speech. Australia, the United States and many other countries have lifted sanctions in light of the continuing changes.

Gillard said in recognition of Myanmar’s moves toward democracy, Australia will soon post a defence attache to the Australian Embassy in Myanmar’s commercial centre of Yangon. But Australia’s arms embargo against Myanmar will remain. Australia will also post a trade commissioner to Yangon to increase trade and investment links with Myanmar.

“Australia wants to encourage the development of a modern, professional defence force in Myanmar which continues to support democratization and reform,” Gillard said.

“It will take time to move to a full normal defence relationship and we will do so carefully on a step-by-step basis,” she added.

She said restrictions would be lifted on defence interactions in areas including humanitarian and disaster relief as well as peacekeeping. There could be joint training exercises between the two nations’ militaries, she said.

“It is not fully normalizing defence relationships, but it is opening the door and it is a vital first step so that we can then consider further proposals in the future, including proposals about training,” she said.

Australia’s arms embargo prohibits the supply, sale or transfer to Myanmar of arms and related materiel. It also prohibits the provision of technical advice, assistance or training to Myanmar related to military activities.

Australia in July last year lifted targeted travel and financial sanctions against Myanmar’s rulers in response to the country’s democratic reforms.

Many of Myanmar’s most pressing challenges involve strife among its many ethnic groups, and that was reflected in Thein Sein’s visit. About 50 members of the Rohingya ethnic community travelled 300 kilometres (180 miles) from their homes in Sydney to protest peacefully outside Parliament House.

About 200 people, mostly Muslim Rohingya, have died since June in violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. Other Rohingya have died trying to escape Myanmar in rickety boats.

Protest organizer Mohammed Anwar said the violent persecution of his people must end before Australia rebuilds military and other ties.

“The president could stop the persecution if he wants,” Anwar said. “But currently, he isn’t doing anything.”

The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar at 800,000. Most are denied citizenship and have no passports, and they are not among the 135 ethnic groups recognized by the Myanmar government. The government considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many of their families have lived in the country for generations.

Thein Sein said in a November letter to the United Nations that Myanmar will consider new rights for the Rohingya, though he gave no timetable and promised no changes.