Samantha Hawley: Well first of all if I could ask you, obviously, about your trip here. I just wonder, do you think there could be a danger, I guess, in embracing Myanmar too quickly? That is, coming into the fold too quickly, bringing in business, investment, when obviously there are still major issues in this country. It’s come out of many, many years of military dictatorship and as we’ve seen, there’s still numerous human rights concerns here.
Julie Bishop: I don’t underestimate the challenges that Myanmar faces after over five decades of authoritarian rule, it was always going to be a long, slow process to embrace democracy. But I believe that countries, like Australia and others in the ASEAN community, need to support Myanmar in its political and economic and social reforms, take it step-by-step, and be there to provide support as it’s required. And that’s why we’re providing about $90 million in foreign aid this year to focus on not only education outcomes, which is capacity-building, but also the peace process here and generally assisting the government and the political leadership here, which includes the opposition, to realise this path to democracy. It will take time, but I think that countries like Australia have a role to play in assisting them on this path.
Samantha Hawley: But also a role of course in condemning human rights abuses. In Mandalay of course we saw, while you’ve been here, some sectarian violence. In Rakhine State we see pregnant women dying because NGOs have been forced out of that state. Was that a matter that you raised? Did you raise the fact that really, humanitarian aid needs to be in those places for people to survive?
Julie Bishop: Yes, I’ve raised the issue of human rights and respecting human rights with all the political leadership that I’ve met. I have met with representatives from Rakhine State, I’ve also met with representatives of the Rohingya community, and representatives of some of the ethnic political parties who will be contesting the next election. I’ve heard from them the concerns that they have. I raised their concerns with the political leadership and of course we condemn sectarian violence and we call for greater support for, particularly, those disadvantaged, those in Rakhine State and elsewhere. This is one of the poorest, in fact it is the poorest, country in the ASEAN region. It’s listed number 149 on the United Nations Human Development Index. So there is a long way to go, they’re going to need a lot of support. But yes of course I’ve raised the issues of not only human rights, and respect of human rights as it emerges as a democracy, but also the humanitarian assistance that is required.
Samantha Hawley: Can we move onto Thailand? Obviously military rule is back there. Once again Australia’s made some moves, of disapproval I suppose, against that. Could Australia go further if the Thai military drags its feet in regards to returning to democracy?
Julie Bishop: Well Australia, of course, is a democracy, we value democracy and its rule of law and that’s what we hope for in other countries in our region. And we did make statements at the time of the military coup. We think it was deeply unfortunate and we have put in place some financial and travel sanctions against those who we believe were responsible for the coup. But we want to ensure that the people of Thailand can live in peace and prosperity and in a democracy, and have a say in an election as soon as possible. So while we don’t approve of the military coup, we do want to see stability and prosperity in Thailand. And so we’ve downgraded some of our engagement, but we will continue to support the people of Thailand to realise their aspirations for a peaceful and secure society.
Samantha Hawley: Can you, on another matter, explain the transfer of asylum seekers onto a Sri Lankan navy boat?
Julie Bishop: These are operational matters, and it is the policy of the Government under Operation Sovereign Borders not to discuss on-water operational matters. But we are determined to ensure that our border protection laws have integrity, that we abide by our international obligations. But importantly, we stop people making the horrible journey by sea on unseaworthy boats to Australia. We do not want to see women and children and families drown at sea, as happened in the past. And we’re determined to stop that.
Samantha Hawley: So you’re not saying it didn’t happen, you’re just saying you won’t say that it did happen?
Julie Bishop: I’m not making any comment. We don’t discuss operational matters. We don’t discuss on-water operational matters. And we certainly don’t flag our intentions to the people smuggling trade. This is a criminal trade, and we’re determined to stamp it out.
Samantha Hawley: Because the United Nations for one certainly thinks that international law could have been broken. In this case they think that it has happened. They’ve recently, in the last few minutes, put out a statement condemning that action. Are you in breach of international law if a transfer like that takes place?
Julie Bishop: Australia abides by its international obligations and will continue to do so. But we will also restore our border protection laws to ensure that people do not die at sea. There is nothing humanitarian about encouraging the people smuggling trade to put people on unseaworthy boats and encourage them to take the dangerous sea journey to Australia. Men, women and children have drowned at sea and we’re determined to put an end to it.
Samantha Hawley: And in putting an end to it, is it ok to break international law if that is required to put an end to the people smuggling trade?
Julie Bishop: The Australian Government will abide by its international obligations.
Samantha Hawley: Ok, well the UN says that under international law, you must screen asylum seekers that come to Australia for refuge for instance. That no individual can be turned away involuntarily. Can you guarantee that that has not happened under this Government?
Julie Bishop: Australia is aware of its international obligations and we abide by them.
Samantha Hawley: But you still won’t say whether these transfers have taken place at sea, so how will people know that you actually are abiding by them?
Julie Bishop: It’s the Government’s policy not to comment on operational matters and I don’t intend to start. We are not going to give the people smuggling trade the opportunity to take advantage of people and take money from them and put them on un-seaworthy boats. So we’re not going to discuss operational matters that will assist and aid and abet a criminal activity.
Samantha Hawley: But surely a transfer of asylum seekers from one boat to another in the middle of the ocean is a deterrent to people smugglers, not an encouragement?
Julie Bishop: I don’t comment on operational matters. We don’t put anybody’s lives at risk.
Samantha Hawley: Just on another issue, you welcomed Japan’s changes to the constitution, that it can now send troops around the world. But really isn’t that a move that will deepen tensions within the region?
Julie Bishop: Japan is proposing to exercise its right to collective self-defence, that every member of the United Nations has. I believe that having Japan adopt a more normal defence posture will mean that we’ll be able to work more closely with them in humanitarian situations, in peace-keeping operations, in disaster relief. And Japan is one of the most significant contributors to the United Nations. It is a responsible international citizen, and we’re happy to work in partnership with Japan.
Samantha Hawley: Because it comes of course at a time when there’s deep tensions over the South China Sea. I note also that the Japanese Prime Minister will address the Parliament next week, that he’ll also attend a national security meeting of Cabinet. Is that not just purely a message to China?
Julie Bishop: The South China issues involve a number of countries, not Japan. It involves the Philippines and Vietnam and Malaysia and others. And I’ve spoken about this with the political leadership here in fact, in Myanmar, as the chair of the ASEAN group, to ensure that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, that involve China and others, are resolved through peaceful negotiations.
Samantha Hawley: And a Japanese leader sitting in on a national meeting of Cabinet, a security meeting of Cabinet, I mean what about…
Julie Bishop: You’re talking about the East China Sea now, between China and Japan?
Samantha Hawley: Well that’s fine. But we’re talking about tensions in the region. And Australia is inviting a Japanese leader to sit in on a security meeting. Is that not just a message for China?
Julie Bishop: We have been invited to sit in on the security committee meetings of a number of countries. We have a strong defence partnership, I think it’s entirely appropriate for the Japanese Prime Minister, the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit in at least a decade, to address a meeting of our National Security Committee, given our defence engagement and given the changes that Japan proposes to its defence posture. I think it’s entirely appropriate that we should be briefed on that directly by the Prime Minister. So I see that as a positive sign, and we’re very open with China about our partnership with Japan and very open about the fact that the Japanese Prime Minister will be addressing a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament. After all, President Hu Jintao addressed a joint sitting of the Parliament in the Howard Government. So we do make these invitations to countries that are important to us, that are significant to us. So we’ve had leaders of Canada, China, the United Kingdom…
Samantha Hawley: They all sat in on the national security meetings?
Julie Bishop: Some have.
Samantha Hawley: Do you know which ones?
Julie Bishop: Oh this would be going back…
Samantha Hawley: Maybe not the Chinese.
Julie Bishop: …to times when I was not a member of the National Security Committee. I can only comment on matters when I’ve been a member of the National Security Committee.
Samantha Hawley: You have said in a speech recently that these are pre-like war times. Times like previous to World War I, I understand…
Julie Bishop: No I didn’t actually draw a parallel, I said that there were similarities in border disputes over the centuries. My point was that because we are commemorating the centenary of World War I, it’s constructive to look back and see how a single, random event, and subsequent miscalculations and misjudgements spiralled out of control into a terrible global conflict. So my point was that single, random events should be seen in that context and we must avoid miscalculations or misjudgements. That’s why I think a forum for peaceful negotiations of, for example, the East China Sea disputes, the South China Sea disputes, no unilateral action, no coercive action, and we should discuss these matters peacefully and in accordance with international law.
Samantha Hawley: Given the tensions then, and given your comments there, surely Japan’s actions can only provoke China?
Julie Bishop: Quite the contrary. I think what Japan’s doing is adopting a normal defence posture. It is a member of the United Nations, it’s been a significant contributor to the United Nations, and it’s exercising its right to collective self-defence, as every other nation that is a member of the UN does.
Samantha Hawley: And just lastly on Baghdad. I understand there’s very few Australians left in the embassy there. Will that be shut soon?
Julie Bishop: Well we downsized the embassy to ensure that we have core staff there because there is still work to be done. But we are very mindful of the security situation in Baghdad. It’s under constant review. We have a need to be there. There are still Australians in Baghdad, including working for companies. We have called on any Australians who have no need to be there to come home and for those who are there to make sure they have arrangements, contingency plans, for their evacuation should that be needed. The Baghdad airport is still operating, there are still commercial flights, and so I urge any Australians who have no need to be in Iraq to leave immediately.
Samantha Hawley: Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.
Julie Bishop: Thank you.
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