Transcript of press conference

Australian Ambassador's Residence, Yangon

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

6 June 2012

Bob Carr: Ladies and gentlemen, it was a great honour today to meet people who have been leading protest movements at enormous risk, one who paid for his beliefs with 22 years prison. It's pretty awe inspiring to think of freedoms being enjoyed in a country that was subject to a pretty crude military dictatorship. To think that there can now be routine political protests, for example, about the power supply; that there can be labour disputes settled by negotiation. It's a long way that this country has come.

The changes though have been political and we're still faced with a Myanmar that is desperately poor. I spoke today to a cardiac surgeon who said that some of the patients she diagnoses simply cannot afford the operations they need to stay alive. Again that reminds you of how things we take for granted in a wealthy country don't apply here.And that's deeply sad.

In ways, it's sad too because the creativity of the people of this country are held back by the conditions they find themselves in. I was speaking to one of the young activists this morning, who happens to be a singer;she's got no copyright protection for her songs, for her records. It's just lost. And she suffers because of the retarded political, social development as a result of those decades of military dictatorship.

I was inspired by one of the young people I met today who describes himself as a citizen journalist, a 'CJ'. I thought, CJ, Chief Justice, but no, citizen journalist and he's part of the democratic evolution of this country as well.

I discussed with them and with the opposition politicians the focus of Australian aid programs. Some of these politicians and ethnic representatives said we need help in getting proper police, proper military and capacity building with political parties so that the country can evolve democratically.

There was a view with people I spoke to that sooner or later the military has to go back to the barracks. In other words, that those reserved seats in the parliament for the military, that will be a thing of the past, the country will grow out of that, the country will grow beyond that. And there was inevitability about that evolution over time.

Why has this come about? Well I've heard different explanations. Why does a military dictatorship beginreform? And why do the reformslook reasonably robust, reasonably strong, not about to be reversed but proceed?And a couple of my partners in these discussions suggested that it was the influenceof the Arab Spring, which I find an interesting view. But clearly there were other forces at work. There was another one of the people I spoke to said it was thedevelopment of a civil society and the development of citizens who had a view about where the country should go and this has doomed the military dictatorship to a gradual extinction.

So I'm looking forward very much to the meeting this afternoon. I'm looking forward as well to meetings with the government in the capital tomorrow.

Journalist: What do think when you meet people who have spent 22 years in jail, I mean, what impression did you get?

Carr: One feels very humble, but one feels more humble when someone who's been in jail for 22 years says to you that he forgives his jailers and that his Buddhism, his meditation and his sense of humour kept him going. I asked him bluntly, 'what kept you going for 22 years in prison?' and he said his religion, Buddhism, and he said his sense of humour. And he was in jail long enough to experience jailers and then their sons being his captors: 22 years is a long time. He said he read Mandela and he read Abraham Lincoln, so there we have something in common.

Journalist: Senator Carr, some of the people that we've spoken to are I think perhaps now opening up more than they have in the past and are a little more pessimistic and suspicious about where things are going. They are concerned that the military is not so much driven by a desire to see Burma free but by a desire to keep control of a process that will allow them to keep their wealth and at the same time not wind up suffering the sort of retribution that's happened in the Middle-East. Did you get a sense of that from any of them?

Carr: Anything's possible. It was more a view that the society has opened up and the international interest and pressure is very, very greatand that could outweigh the causesof concern. The world is looking, the world is here. The people from government I spoke to today say that on any working day they could have five meetings with international visitors. In fact so many meetings that they've got to do their real job at night. So the world is watching. America is particularly focused on what happens here and the economic relationship with the United States and the European Union is very important. I'm disinclined to think that the government will place that at risk.

The fact that there are labour disputes, as in any normal society, being settled by negotiation; the fact that there are environmental arguments, that those are being conducted publicly; the fact that there is a negotiation between the central government and some of the ethnic groups, including the insurgency groups; all this would suggest that something is underway and the weight of evidence would be that we've got to engage them. We've got to be part of it.

And we've got to be helping a desperately poor country. When you hear that children in this country today are less likely than their parents to stay in school; when you hear that less than one per cent of the GDP goes on health, less than one per cent goes on education, you realise how deeplyimpoverished it has been for those years of dictatorship and we've really got to engage to help them go forward.

Journalist: You talked about the military inevitably being squeezed out of the parliamentary system. Did the government advisers discuss that with you, or have a response to that?

Carr: No I don't think I could put words in their mouth, but there's a view of some of the others, some of the people in opposition, some of the civil society people, that over time that's going to happen; the military will move back to the barracks.They, I don't want to put words in their mouths again, but they didn't seem uncomfortable with the idea that it's going to happen by degrees.

Journalist: There's been talk that there's a rift between Aung San SuuKyi and the President after her visit to Thailand last week, did that come up?

Carr: No.

Journalist: Do you get the impression that there might exist a hardline group in the military who we're not seeing or hearing from that would like to reverse the process?

Carr: I think that would be speculation. I didn't hear that put to me by any one of the wide-range group of people from civil society or from opposition or from ethnic communities who spoke with me. I didn't get a sense that suddenly things were capable of being reversed. Maybe, somebody said, that the pace of reform could be slowed down — that was likely to be the area for argument.

Journalist: And did you get a sense that the military was quite startled by the strength of SuuKyi's win in the by-elections?

Carr: Well I was struck by the fact that people were looking to the future rather than analysing or over analysing the past and that is not the least of the healthy signs I detected. It's marvellous to see a country in transition to democratic norms.

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