Myanmar country brief
Myanmar is the largest country in mainland South-East Asia. Located between China, India, and Thailand, Myanmar lies in an area of dynamic political and economic development. Myanmar’s diverse population is estimated at around 60 million, with eight major ethnic groups comprising over 100 ethnic nationalities. Despite its size and strategic location, Myanmar is also the poorest country in the region, with almost a third of its population estimated to be living in poverty.
For much of its contemporary history, Myanmar has been ruled by a military dictatorship, leading to international isolation and condemnation. The inauguration of a civilian government in 2011 has seen steps taken towards political reform, with the release of hundreds of political prisoners, peace talks with armed ethnic groups, and new laws that provide for greater freedom of expression and assembly, labour rights and political participation. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Senator the Hon Bob Carr, outlined the recent progress in Myanmar in an article on 4 April 2012. Senator Carr travelled to Myanmar from 5-8 June 2012 to assess what more Australia could do to support reform efforts in Myanmar.
In April 2012, Myanmar conducted parliamentary by-elections. Australia, along with other countries, accepted an invitation to monitor the ballot. Senator Carr welcomed the results of these elections, including the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and acknowledged the role of Myanmar President Thein Sein in leading Myanmar towards democratic reform. Senator Carr and the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness the Hon Dr Craig Emerson MP issued a further joint media statement on reforms in Myanmar on 16 April 2012, outlining an easing of sanctions and steps to normalise bilateral trade relations.
Australia-Myanmar bilateral relationship
The Australian Government’s engagement with Myanmar was for many years limited by the nature of the ruling military regime there. Nonetheless, Australia consistently expressed concerns over Myanmar’s human rights record and delivered humanitarian aid. The Australian Government maintains an embassy in the former capital and commercial centre of Rangoon (Yangon). Australia maintains a longstanding ban on defence exports to Myanmar. On 7 June 2012, Senator Carr announced that Australia would lift its autonomous travel and financial sanctions on Myanmar, in order to lend further support to the reforms underway. This took effect on 3 July 2012.
Recent developments in the bilateral relationship
From 5-8 June 2012 the Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator the Hon Bob Carr travelled to Myanmar. He met with the Myanmar President U Thein Sein, Myanmar's Foreign Minister, U Wunna Maung Lwin and National League for Democracy party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Foreign Minister made a number of significant announcements during his visit.
- Australia's will lift targeted travel and financial sanctions against Myanmar, noting the arms embargo will be maintained
- Australia has invited President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Australia
- Australia's aid to Myanmar will double to $100 million by 2015
- Australia will provide new human rights and peacebuilding assistance to Myanmar
- Australia will provide financial and personnel support to preserve urban heritage in Yangon
Closer bilateral relations have led to a significant increase in the number of senior visits between Myanmar and Australia in 2012. As guests of the Australian Parliament, the Speaker of Myanmar's Lower House of Parliament, Thura U Shwe Mann, and the Speaker of Myanmar Upper House of Parliament, U Khin Aung Myint, led parliamentary delegations to Australia from 17-23 September and 6-14 October respectively.
Australia's Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, visited Myanmar from 22-26 October with a 12-member Australian business delegation. In meetings with Myanmar's leaders, Mr Shorten emphasised Australia's desire to continue to support Myanmar in its democratic transition and underscored the importance of labour rights and encouraging ethical investment.
Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin visited Australia from 23-26 October for a bilateral meeting with Senator Carr in the first visit by an Myanmar Foreign Minister to Australia since 1984. Myanmar Health Minister Dr Pe Thet Khin attended an international malaria conference in Sydney from 31 October to 2 November. In June 2011 then Minister for Foreign Affairs the Hon Kevin Rudd MP made the first visit to Myanmar by an Australian minister since 2002. Mr Rudd raised Australia's longstanding concerns about human rights and democracy in Myanmar, called for the release of political prisoners and urged the Myanmar Government to ensure the political freedom and security of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic and ethnic political figures.
On 7 June 2012, the Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr announced Australia would lift Australia's autonomous travel and financial sanctions on Myanmar. This took effect on 3 July 2012. Australia's arms embargo remains in place.
Acknowledging Myanmar's reform program, on 16 April 2012 the Australian Government also announced that it would normalise our trade and investment relationship with Myanmar, discontinuing a policy of neither encouraging nor discouraging trade. With the exception of a ban on defence exports, instituted in 1991, Australia has never applied general trade or investment sanctions on Myanmar.
In 1989, the Myanmar authorities changed the official name of the country in English from Burma to Myanmar (in full, the Union of Myanmar). In 2010 the Union of Myanmar became the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. A number of Myanmar opposition political parties and groups do not recognise the changes and continue to refer to the country in English as Burma.
Myanmar is used by international organisations of which it is a member, such as the United Nations (UN), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Practice by countries varies.
The Australian Government refers to the country as Myanmar.
Regional assistance and law enforcement cooperation
Australia has a regional program of assistance to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member. 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 with the Myanmar police focused on counter-narcotics, as well as countering child-sex tourism and trafficking in persons. Myanmar is the second biggest source of heroin globally and is a significant producer of amphetamine-type stimulants.
Myanmar has the lowest social development indicators in the region. One quarter of its 55 million people live in poverty and public investment in both education and health is the lowest in the world, at less than one per cent of GDP.
Australia is one of the largest aid donors in Myanmar, with a substantial development assistance program focused on education, health and improving livelihoods.Australia’s bilateral aid to Myanmar will double to $100 million by 2015. For further information on Australia’s development assistance program, including assistance related to Rakhine State, please visit the AusAid Myanmar website.
Australia has consistently urged the Myanmar Government to improve the human rights situation in Myanmar, both 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. Australia co-sponsored the March 2011 resolution renewing Mr Quintana’s mandate, and welcomed his fifth visit to Myanmar in January 2012.
The Myanmar Government has released significant numbers of political prisoners in recent months, including many high-profile dissidents. In total, more than 700 political prisoners have been released over the last year. The Australian Government continues to urge the Myanmar Government to release all remaining political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.
Progress has been made towards resolving longstanding ethnic conflicts, although many challenges remain. On 12 January 2012, the Myanmar Government announced that it had reached a ceasefire with the Karen National Union, ending one of the world's longest running civil conflicts. Ceasefires have also been reached in Chin State and with the Shan State South Army. Australia is providing development assistance to support peace efforts.
Australia has frequently raised labour issues in the International Labour Organization (ILO), calling on the Myanmar Government to eliminate forced labour and the recruitment of minors into the military. The Myanmar Parliament passed new labour laws in September 2011 which aim to bring Myanmar back into line with international norms and ILO standards.
In March 2011, former Prime Minister Thein Sein was inaugurated as the President of Myanmar. At the head of a civilian government, President Thein Sein proposed a wide-ranging reform agenda, committing to move towards a full democratic transition, installing a market economy and tackling Myanmar's entrenched ethnic conflicts.
A ceasefire with the Karen National Union brought an end to one of the world's longest running civil conflicts on 12 January 2012. Negotiations with other ethnic groups are ongoing. On 13 January 2012, 651 prisoners were released, including many high profile dissidents. This followed the release of around 220 political prisoners in October 2011.
President Thein Sein initiated a dialogue with the National League of Democracy, culminating in the NLD's participation and victory in April 2012 by-elections. Existing laws regulating media expression, political party registration and the freedom of assembly have been replaced, and the Myanmar Government has passed laws prohibiting the use of forced labour.
The international community has recognised the commitment of the Myanmar Government to political reform by easing sanctions and actively engaging with Myanmar as it addresses these challenges.
Despite significant natural resources, a large labour force and its location in an area of dynamic economic growth, Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia. In 2011 it ranked 149th out of 187 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. Myanmar imports textile material, petroleum products, fertilisers, machinery, construction material and foodstuffs.
President Thein Sein and his government have recognised the extensive challenges facing Myanmar. As part of a range of economic reforms, the Myanmar 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 Myanmar's minimal private sector lending to increase. Import restrictions on foreign goods have been relaxed, although some restrictions still remain.
The progress in Myanmar's political reforms has seen an easing of international sanctions, and the Myanmar Government has begun introducing significant reforms to encourage foreign investment, including new land and investment laws and creating special economic zones.
Updated November 2012