Transcript of press conference

Nay Pyi Taw

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

7 June 2012

Bob Carr: Ok, quite a bit to talk about ladies and gentlemen. First I'll begin with the lifting of sanctions. It's the strong advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and of our Ambassador that coercive measures no longer contribute to the reform process in Myanmar.And I accept that advice and nothing I've encountered in the time I've been here, talking to opposition groups or civil society has challenged that conclusion. The challenge is to get the reform process continuing at a robust and serious pace and the advice that I've got is that we can reinforce that more by engagement than by reliance on coercive measures.

Our sanctions have been peeled back of course, no longer amount to a great deal. They amount to bans on financial transactions and travel to Australia for 126 members of the government. We believe it's a gesture of goodwill to say to the government, they go, but we understand, and I think they understand, that were there serious backsliding or a reversal of reform that we're in a position, with one signature, to reimpose them. But I'm more optimistic, not recklessly optimistic, but more optimistic about the progress here. It's striking that in my conversations with people from non-government organisations and from opposition parties that there's been no resistance to this. Indeed, talking toKoKoGyi yesterday, a member of the 88 Generation, someone who was in prison for 22 years, there was a very relaxed response to me signalling that we were considering a lifting of sanctions.

As I said, we don't think they contribute to the reform impetus;that's the advice of our professional diplomats and it's not contradicted by the views of opposition groups or civil society activists. Certainly Daw Suu says the push must come ultimately from within Burmese society. I think that's a good way of putting it. Her expression, her preference, for a suspension rather than a lifting, I think is accommodated easily with my approach.

And indeed there's an additional argument here that I'll share with you, that when it comes to visits to Australia, we're able to use the ordinary visa approval process if we find someone applying to come to our country has got a repellent civil rights record. That's collected by the normal filtering process that applies as a result of existing law.

There's one other point I'd make and that is when it comes to militarylinks, we haven't normalised defence links with Myanmar. We're retaining our arms embargo and we'll continue to have limited bilateral contact with the armed forces.But the opportunity for engaging with them about human rights, for example, is very real and we shouldn't overlook that.

I want to highlight that we're going to double our aid to Myanmar by 2015 and the appalling poverty of this country drives that decision and the political liberalisation means we've got a clear idea now of how our aid is being used. Our aid program over the next year will help around one million children to gain better access to education by providing essential school supplies, teacher training and food aid to schools in remote areas.

With Daw Suu yesterday, I discussed in detail how our aid in education might work and I take on board her suggestion that we must focus on vocational education related to newly created jobs. We must pay attention to teacher training and to the status of teachers.

Bear in mind that Myanmar receives only $8 per person in international assistance, compared with $68 per person in Laos and $49 per person in Cambodia.

We're announcing $3 million as a package to assist human rights initiatives in Myanmar.And with a particular focus to the rights of the child,with Australia's support,UNICEF will help the government of this country to strengthen the rights of children at risk in the juvenile justice system. I think this is a quite wonderful initiative. It's going to mean that a poor country can reach a new benchmark when it comes to looking after kids at risk. And who could think of kids more at risk than those in the detention system of a country this impoverished. We're going to help them implement key legal reforms like lifting the age of criminal responsibility from seven, to 14 years of age and raising the legal age of a child from 16 to 18.

There's going to be human rights training as well, funded by Australia. The Presidentpointed out to me the establishment of a Human Rights Commission in Myanmar. Well, in partnership with that initiative, we can see that there's broader human rights training across the country. We'll be supporting Australian academics from two Australianuniversities to identify priorities and how these can be addressed. We're going to back peace initiatives in the regions of the country — conflict affected regions — spending $5 million on backing peace agreements in parts of Myanmar that have been afflicted by conflict between ethnic communities and the centre. We're going to be involved with the peace support initiative in which countries like Norway are helping the government. We're going to supportthese initiatives. It's going to mean Australian money flowing to rebuilding lives in communities that have been degraded by decades of conflict. That means health and education services. It means de-mining. Australia has funded a lot of demining. It meansfunding to kick start small businesses. The President reminded me that in many of these regions you've got people who've been dispossessed returning to their homelands and they need housing, they need services. This is a big challenge for a country in transition.

I've invited the President to visit Australia. I said that our Prime Minister regards him as a good friend. He said that he's had a good cooperative relationship with Prime Minister Gillard and he responded warmly to that invitation. My hope is that we can meet the demands of his very pressured diary.

Australia's got expertise when it comes to the mining sector.Because of our various mining booms, not least this current one that's running so strongly we've got good solid templates for regulating mining;recently updated as Australian states and the Commonwealth come to terms with challenges posed by gas exploration andmining. But generally we get it right and mostly we've had it right for some years. We've got a lot of mines. We regulate them well. I know as a Premier how you can resolve community concerns of farmers and townships via a proper regulatory regime. And I know we do pretty well at assessing the environmental impact of mining through commissions of inquiry and environmental impact statements and evaluations and all the rest.

What I offered both the President and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and mentioned to the opposition parties, is that we can leverage this expertise to help the country that is going to face a huge investment in gold and copper mining and in energy development. The Australian standard — a very good benchmark — could be seen as a template by this country and the President expressed a keen interest in that.

Journalist: What was the President's response to the lifting of sanctions?

Carr: I think he saw it in the context of other countries easing or lifting sanctions and I don't think it took him by surprise. I think there's been an international trend that acknowledges and which is supportive. For my part I might add it is clear that the national and the international impetus for reform here is running so strongly, I don't think that coercive measures help. I agree with our Ambassador and others in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that coercive measures aren't helpful. The impetus is there and it's there because of the development of a civil society very largely. The people that I've met, for example the community journalist I met as part of a group of young people; the young singer who works with civil society on political campaigns; the members of political parties that are ethnically based; or long term oppositionists; all want to see more engagement. I'm convinced we get more now through engagement than coercion.

Journalist: What sense did you get from the President about what's happened in the last 12 months in Burma? He's largely opened the door to reform. He must take some credit for it. Is he concerned about the pace of it in any way? Does he feel that's going to continue at the same pace?

Carr: He outlined in some detail for me what had been achieved and where he's taking the country. For my part I said that a reformer, someone who leads his country from military dictatorship to multiparty democracy, has got a claim on greatness.And we've admired people who've done that,as we've seen dictatorships dissolveelsewhere in the world. I think they deserve special credit. Who would have thought five years ago, who would have thought in 1988 or 1990 that there would be a President with a military title in this country saying that he wants a multi-party democracy? That is tremendous progress.

Journalist: Is there a danger of being caught up in reckless optimism of being swept up in the reform process and then an inability to pull back if it needs.

Carr: Yeah, I accept completely what Aung San SuuKyi said the need for cautious rather than reckless optimism. The point to me was expressed rather in economic development and investment and I thought she was very persuasive and when I talk to Australian business about opportunities here I'm going to say that I spoke to Aung San SuuKyi and she said this country needs responsible investment that measures up to the best OECD standards. Theydon't want anything reckless. They don't want any overnight get rich quick philosophy. Australian business ought to do things that the Australian people can be proud of.

Journalist: And we know that there are still human rights abuses in places such as Kachin state. Was that brought up in any meeting with the President?

Carr: I raised in both my meeting with the President and the Foreign Ministerthat the world would be encouraged by evidence of more peaceful settlement of the disputes, ethnic based movements in regions of Myanmar and the need for more amnesties for political prisoners. We will continue to press them in the context of engagement rather than coercion while always reserving our right to return to the sanctions that we are intending at this stage to lift.

Journalist: Senator Carr, can I just ask you in a slightly different area. Further to the Four Corners program the other night, the revelations about the people smuggler living and operating in Australia. Apparently the Indonesian ForeignMinister has raised some concerns, quite strongly worded in the last few hours about the fact that this person was able to operate from there while we do manage to lock up a lot of people involved in the whole people smuggling area. He also said there was an investigation, that Australian authorities were investigating. Can you tell us what you are investigating and what your feeling is about this man operating in Australia?

Carr: I think the comments by Marty Natalegawa are quite legitimate. The Indonesians are entitled to make that point. For our part you know there is a full investigation into it and we are opposed to people smuggling. We think it degrades the whole process of legitimate refugee assessment. The Indonesians are entitled to make that point and we are committed of course to looking at the position of minors in detention in Australia in adult prisons and my colleague the Attorney-General has said that as soon as their ages are established and are known to be minors, they are released and obviously Australia wants that to continue, because it's in line with our own values, in line with the recommendations of the Human Rights Commission, and it's simply the right thing.

Journalist: On your current visit you have spoken at length to Aung SanSuuKyi and the President. Is there any conflict over who is actually running Burma? Who the world should be talking to here? Are they as one?

Carr: I think it is good diplomatic practice in any country to talk to as many people as you can. As I arrived to see Aung SanSuuKyi, a party leader, a recently elected to member of the parliament, an inspirational figure around the world, who was leaving? The Chinese Ambassador. He was speaking to her as an important figure in the political life of the country. We will speak, will continue to speak, to all those in the political system here and we respect the position of the President, as a person from a military background, who has bravely steered his country to reform. It is not up to us to make assessments about the balance of political forces in the country. Our concern is our relationship with Myanmar.

Journalist: The pace of engagement in the short term is likely to be set by the American treasury sanctions and their freeing up third party banks to get involved. Did you get any sense what the Americans are doing and how coordinated we are?

Carr: No it is not coordinated. We are making a decision as an Australian government based on our assessment here. We would watch with interest what the United States chooses to do.

Journalist: Can our banks come in here?

Carr:I intend to talk torepresentatives of our four banks, when I go back and say the question has come up while I was here, that there appears to be a hunger for Australian financial services. We never had bans on them working here, unlike what I understand to be the American position. And our older position was that we neither encouraged nor discouraged investment. But certainly I will report back to them that I have detected an appetite for Australian financial services delivered by them here.

Journalist: Do you see some of your earlier remarks to be taking pains to assure China that we're part of the encirclement process that is trying to draw Burma into an alliance or engagement in a strategic sense that is directed against China. Is that something you have been conscious to…

Carr: I am very conscious of it. Aung San SuuKyi said to me by the way, that when she was growing up, which was in the 50s, after the brutal assassination of her father. She can still remember fondly, the Chinese Ambassador, at the time, inviting her, her brothers and her mother, quite regularly to dinner. She remembers the multi course Chinese meals. It a reminder, a little symbol, of Burma having a naturally close relationship with China, and this being understood in all sorts of ways, regardless of the character of the regime or government in Myanmar. I think the rest of the world can expect that whatever the political character of the government in Myanmar, it will have a close relationship with the People's Republic of China. If China is able to satisfy many of its energy needs with the cooperation of Myanmar, then that's a good thing for China and, by implication, a good thing for the world. China is less dependent, even marginally, from sea lines of communication because of over land linkages negotiated with Myanmar, then again, by satisfying Chinese concerns it's a good thing for them and a good thing for the world.

We respect and underline a condition in foreign policy of Myanmar and Burma that reflects the spirit of the non-aligned movement.I think other nations should show a similar respect for what appears to be a long-term foreign policy stance of Myanmar. There should be no effort to couch events in Myanmar in terms of American-Chinese strategic competition elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.

I touched briefly in both my meetings this morning on my enthusiasm for seeing the old building stock of Yangon protected to maximise the appeal of the city in the years ahead to the rest of the world and to capture some of the history of Burma so that modern Myanmar can appreciate where the country came from — the multiculturalism that is part of its legacy. The President seemed very knowledgeable and appreciative of what Australia was stepping up to do.

We've already had an offer from a former developer in Melbourne to offer expertise up here and I've asked AusAID to give this a very high priority.

Journalist: Can you say who that is, the developer?

Carr: No I wasn't told. But a former ambassador got in touch with an email message saying that he had recruited a Melbourne developer who thinks it's a great cause and wants to offer expertise. Not business links, but expertise.

Journalist: The name's not Whelan?

Carr: No, there was no hint of a name and I can't assume there is. But, if we get can get the sort of expertise that produced the restoration of the Queen Victoria Building, or Flinders Street Station or Freemantle translated to downtown old Rangoon I think it would be a wonderful thing. It would be great if Australians could contribute to saving Myanmar's heritage in this way.

Thanks folks.

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