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 around one quarter 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. 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 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, Myanmar conducted parliamentary by-elections. Australia, along with other countries, accepted an invitation to monitor 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 Myanmar President Thein Sein in leading Myanmar towards democratic reform.
In signs of continuing reform, the Myanmar parliament has agreed to review the Constitution. The next parliamentary elections will be held in Myanmar in 2015.
Australia-Myanmar bilateral relationship
Australia is increasing its bilateral engagement with Myanmar and support for the reform process, in recognition of the country’s progress towards democracy. As a close neighbour, Australia will benefit from a more open and prosperous Myanmar, that is fully integrated into the region.
Australia is on track to increase aid to Myanmar to $100 million per year by 2015-16. Our development assistance is focused on education, health, livelihoods and rural development, peace building and economic and democratic governance. Australia will provide $20 million over two years (2013-2015) for the first phase of the new Myanmar-Australia Partnership for Reform which 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 Myanmar Government in January 2013.
Australia is facilitating increased trade and investment links with Myanmar, and in May 2013 opened an Austrade office in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial centre, and has appointed a Trade Commissioner.
Australia is also lifting some restrictions on defence engagement with Myanmar. This is to encourage the development of a modern, professional defence force in Myanmar that supports democratisation and reform. The Government will post a resident Defence Attaché to Myanmar, to allow for greater engagement and dialogue with the Myanmar Defence Force.
Australia maintains an arms embargo against Myanmar, but lifted autonomous travel and financial sanctions in July 2012, in order to support the reforms underway.
Prior to 2011, Australia’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 Yangon.
Recent developments in the bilateral relationship
Closer bilateral relations have led to a significant increase in the number of senior visits between Myanmar and Australia.
The President of Myanmar, 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 Myanmar since 1974.
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, as guests of the Australian Parliament, from 17 to 23 September 2012 and 6 to 14 October 2012 respectively.
Myanmar’s Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin visited Australia from 23 to 26 October 2012, the first visit by a Foreign Minister of Myanmar to Australia since 1984. Myanmar’s 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.
The former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Bob Carr, travelled to Myanmar in July 2013 and June 2012. Former Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP, travelled to Myanmar in June 2011, the first Australian minister to visit there since the Hon Alexander Downer in 2002. Former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, visit Myanmar in October 2012, accompanied by a 12 member business delegation. A parliamentary delegation led by the President of the Senate, the Hon John Hogg, visited Myanmar from 27 April to 1 May 2012.
On 3 July 2012 Australia's lifted autonomous travel and financial sanctions in relation to Myanmar. Australia's arms embargo remains in place.
Individuals and companies doing business with Myanmar 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 with Myanmar 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 Myanmar, including the Myanmar 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 Myanmar. With the exception of a ban on defence exports, instituted in 1991, Australia has never applied general trade or investment sanctions on Myanmar.
Austrade publishes the guide Doing business in 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.
Australia 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. 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 one of the lowest in the world.
Australia is a significant aid donor in Myanmar.
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, who last visited Myanmar in August 2013. Australia is also supporting the development of Myanmar’s human rights capacity, and promoting its regional cooperation with other human rights institutions.
Progress has been made towards resolving longstanding ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, although many challenges remain. The Myanmar Government has reached tentative peace agreements 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 and a preliminary ceasefire with the Karen National Union on 12 January 2012, leading to ending one of the world's longest running civil conflicts. Australia is providing development assistance to support peace efforts.
Australia has stressed to Myanmar’s leaders the importance of resolving the unrest in Rakhine State, the need to protect the rights of all of Myanmar’s people and to promote peace among ethnic groups. Australia is one of the largest bilateral contributors in foreign aid to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.
The Myanmar Government has released significant numbers of political prisoners since 2011, including many high-profile dissidents. In total, more than 800 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 Myanmar Government’s establishment of the Committee to Verify remaining Political Prisoners, and the convening of its first meetings. President U 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 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 June 2012 the Myanmar 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 on Myanmar in June 2013.
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 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. 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 investment laws and creating special economic zones.
Updated September 2013