Burma country brief
Burma is the largest country in mainland South-East Asia by area. Located between China, India, and Thailand, Burma lies in an area of dynamic political and economic development. Its diverse population is estimated at around 60 million. The Government recognises 135 separate ethnic groups. Major groups include Burman/Bamar, Shan, Karen/Kayin, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Mon and Karenni/Kayah. Despite its size and strategic location, it is also the poorest country in the region, with around one quarter of its population estimated to be living in poverty.
For much of its contemporary history, Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship, leading to international isolation and condemnation. Since the inauguration of a civilian government in 2011, significant steps have been taken towards political reform, with the release of hundreds of political prisoners, peace talks between all major armed ethnic groups, and new laws that provide for greater freedom of expression and assembly, labour rights and political participation. In April 2012, parliamentary by-elections were held. Australia, along with other countries, accepted an invitation to witness the ballot. Australia welcomed the results of these elections, including the election of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and acknowledged the role of President Thein Sein in leading the country towards democratic reform.
In signs of continuing reform, the parliament has agreed to review the Constitution. The next parliamentary elections will be held in 2015.
Australia is increasing its bilateral engagement and support for the reform process, in recognition of the country's progress towards democracy. Australia will benefit from a more open and prosperous neighbour, that is fully integrated into the region.
Our development assistance is focused on education, health, livelihoods and rural development, peace building and economic and democratic governance. The Myanmar-Australia Partnership for Reform aims to strengthen democratic institutions, promote human rights, improve economic governance and advance the rule of law. Australia became the first western nation to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on Development with the Government in January 2013.
Australia is facilitating increased trade and investment links with Burma. We opened an Austrade office in Rangoon with the arrival of our Trade Commissioner in June 2013.
Australia is also lifting some restrictions on defence engagement with Burma. This is to encourage the development of a modern, professional defence force that supports democratisation and reform. The Australian Government will post a resident Defence Attaché to Burma to allow for greater engagement and dialogue with the Defence Force.
Australia maintains an arms embargo in relation to Burma, but lifted autonomous travel and financial sanctions in July 2012, in order to support the reforms underway.
Prior to 2011, Australia's bilateral engagement was, for many years, limited by the nature of the ruling military regime. Nonetheless, Australia consistently expressed concerns over Burma's human rights record and delivered humanitarian aid. The Australian Government maintains an embassy in the former capital and commercial centre, Rangoon.
Recent developments in the bilateral relationship
Closer bilateral relations have led to a significant increase in the number of senior visits between our two countries.
President U Thein Sein, visited Australia at the invitation of the Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO, from 17 to 20 March 2013. It was the first visit to Australia by a Head of State of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar since 1974.
The Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, Thura U Shwe Mann, and the Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament, U Khin Aung Myint, led parliamentary delegations to Australia, as guests of the Australian Parliament, from 17 to 23 September 2012 and 6 to 14 October 2012 respectively.
Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin visited Australia from 23 to 26 October 2012, the first visit by a Foreign Minister to Australia since 1984. Health Minister, Dr Pe Thet Khin, visited Australia from 31 October to 2 November 2012 and attended an international malaria conference in Sydney.
In May 2013, Minister for Finance, U Win Shein accompanied by Minister for Mines, U Myint Aung visited as part of a mining delegation and attended the Mining for Development and Global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative conferences.
In the other direction, the Governor-General of Australia, Her Excellency the Honourable Quentin Bryce AC CVO, visited Burma from 4 to 8 November 2013. Former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Bob Carr, visited Burma in July 2013 and June 2012. Former Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP, visited in June 2011, the first Australian minister to visit since the Hon Alexander Downer in 2002. Former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, visited in October 2012, accompanied by a 12 member business delegation. A parliamentary delegation visited in September 2012 and President of the Senate, the Hon John Hogg visited from 27 April to 1 May 2013.
On 3 July 2012 Australia's lifted autonomous travel and financial sanctions in relation to Burma . Australia's arms embargo remains in place.
Individuals and companies doing business with, or in, Burma should be aware that individuals and companies with close ties to the military continue to exercise influence across many sectors of the economy, including – but not limited to – the oil, gas and timber sectors. Australians involved in or considering doing business in Burma should familiarise themselves with the scope of the arms embargo under the Autonomous Sanctions Regulations 2011 which prohibits the supply, sale or transfer of arms and related materiel and the provision of related services to Burma, including the military and military-affiliated companies. They should conduct appropriate due diligence, exercise all reasonable precautions about who they are doing business with and, where necessary, obtain independent legal advice.
On 16 April 2012, Australia discontinued a policy of neither encouraging nor discouraging trade, and now encourages and facilitates trade and investment ties with Burma. With the exception of a ban on defence exports instituted in 1991, Australia has never applied general trade or investment sanctions to Burma.
Regional assistance and law enforcement cooperation
Australia has a regional program of assistance to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 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.
The Australian Federal Police has a program of cooperation 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.
Burma has the lowest social development indicators in the region. Around one quarter of its estimated 60 million people lives in poverty (below $1.25 per day) and public investment in both education and health is among of the lowest in the world.
Australia's development assistance to Burma continues to be a cornerstone of the bilateral relationship. Our assistance totalled $64.2 million in 2012-13 and focused on education, health, livelihoods and rural development, peace building and governance. Australia became the first western nation to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on Development Cooperation with the Government, in January 2013.
Australia has consistently urged the Government to improve the human rights situation. We do this bilaterally and in international forums. Australia strongly supports the work of the UN Human Rights Council and the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, who last visited in August 2013. Australia is also supporting the development of the country's human rights capacity and promoting its regional cooperation with other human rights institutions.
Progress has been made towards resolving longstanding ethnic conflicts, although many challenges remain. The Government has reached tentative agreements towards peace with all eleven of the main armed ethnic groups, following signature of a preliminary agreement with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) on 30 May 2013, the last major ethnic armed group not to have an agreement with the civilian government. Australia is one of the largest bilateral contributors in foreign aid to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.
Australia has stressed to Burma's leaders the importance of resolving the unrest in Rakhine State as well as the need to protect the rights of all people living in the country and to address the root causes of the violence. Australia is one of the largest bilateral contributors in foreign aid to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.
The Government has released significant numbers of political prisoners since 2011, including many high-profile dissidents. In total, more than 1100 political prisoners have been released since 2011. Australia continues to urge the Myanmar Government to release all remaining political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Australia has welcomed the Government's establishment of the Committee to Verify remaining Political Prisoners, and the convening of its first meetings. President Thein Sein committed publicly to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of 2013.
Australia has frequently raised labour issues in the International Labour Organization (ILO), calling on the Government to eliminate forced labour and the recruitment of minors into the military. The Parliament passed new labour laws in September 2011 which aim to bring the country back into line with international norms and ILO standards. In June 2012 the Government and armed forces signed a Joint Action Plan to stop the abuse of children in armed conflict, including recruitment of child soldiers. Australia is supporting implementation of the Joint Action Plan through UNICEF. The ILO removed its restricted mandate in June 2013.
Despite significant natural resources, a large labour force and its location in an area of dynamic economic growth, Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia. In 2012 it ranked 149th out of 186 states in the Human Development Index, lagging behind all of its ASEAN neighbours in indicators for poverty, health and education. Its primary exports are raw materials, including natural gas, timber, vegetables, rice and precious stones, mostly to Thailand, India, China and Japan. It imports textile material, petroleum products, fertilisers, machinery, construction material and foodstuffs.
President Thein Sein and his government have recognised the extensive challenges facing the country. As part of a range of economic reforms, the Government worked with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unify the exchange rates and float the kyat in April 2012. Previously the official exchange rate had been around 6.5 kyat to the US dollar, whereas its real value was nearer to 800:1. Major state assets have been privatised and commercial monopolies divested and opened up for competition. Controls on banking operations have been relaxed, opening the way for the current minimal level of private sector lending to increase. Import restrictions on foreign goods have been relaxed, although some restrictions still remain.
The progress on political reform has seen an easing of international sanctions, and the Government has begun introducing significant reforms to encourage foreign investment, including drafting new investment laws and creating special economic zones.
Updated January 2014