Burma and Australian Foreign Aid
Monday 20 March 2017
Australia has had a diplomatic presence in Burma, now known as Myanmar, since 1952. Unlike other countries, we never withdrew, even at the peak of the military rule. In 2013, I had the honour of representing Prime Minister Gillard to welcome military President Thein Sein to Canberra. It did not occur to me at the time that just a few years later I would be in Myanmar with this bipartisan delegation, funded by the Gates Foundation and organised by Save the Children, meeting democratically elected leaders from the National League for Democracy. Labor welcomes the 2015 election result and the strong economic progress that has been made in Myanmar over that period.
During our visit to Myanmar we saw firsthand the good that foreign aid can do. We visited projects run by Oxfam, World Vision, the United Nations Development Programme and the Danish Refugee Council. We saw Australian Volunteers for International Development volunteers. We visited Phandeeyar, where CEO David Madden told us about how Phandeeyar is working on building microenterprises. It is doing everything from teaching the Harvard CS50 computer science course and running accelerator programs for firms to working on democracy projects for its Open Development Myanmar program.
We were assisted by a range of staff, including Paul Ronalds, Peter Hodgson, Mat Tinkler, Sarah Carter and Michael McGrath from Save the Children and Australian embassy officials, including Ambassador Nicholas Coppel, Nick Cumpston, Esther Sainsbury and Jeremy Kruse. In all cases they were a credit to our country and to their role.
But we were also reminded, as we visited those programs, of the damage that an aid cut can do. When you see how Australian aid has helped to provide clean water to communities and how it has helped to guard against the volatility of agriculture, and when you see firsthand how we are assisting in providing agricultural assistance in the fields and the role that Australian aid has played in building an understanding of human rights and economic
development then one is naturally concerned at the 25 per cent cut to Australian aid to Myanmar that has occurred over recent years. When Labor was in government overseas development assistance increased from 0.28 per cent of gross national income in 2007-08 to 0.37 per cent in 2013-14 and was on track to reach 0.5 per cent in 2017-18. Under the coalition, development assistance is now just 0.23 per cent of national income, the lowest level since comparable records began in the 1970s and well below the OECD's average of 0.3 per cent.
As other speakers have acknowledged, one of the large challenges for Myanmar is the treatment of Muslims from Rakhine State. The Rohingya are not one of the 135 ethnic groups recognised in Myanmar's constitution, and their treatment has been a source of great concern for the international community. The Human Rights Watch report on the military's response to the October 9 attack makes horrifying reading. The International Crisis Group has warned that an overreaction by the military could lead to Rakhine State becoming a flashpoint for global jihadis. ASEAN states, including Malaysia and Indonesia, have raised the treatment of the Rohingya.
We were pleased when, in our meeting, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Kyaw Tin, told us that Aung San Suu Kyi's view was that, as the military's response in Rakhine State is scrutinised, nothing should be hidden from public view. We greatly welcome that. But we were deeply concerned to visit internally-displaced people camps in Sittwe and to meet families, some of whom had been there for many years and are still living in communal living situations—circumstances we were told that were unprecedented, even in Sudan, for displaced people to live in for this long. The stories of women who had lost their babies because of their inability to access hospital assistance in speedy time were chilling.
I believe that Australia could do more to explain its position on key human rights issues, particularly the draft resolution in the UN Human Rights Council. Our military engagement must operate under the conventions that are necessary to protect human rights, but higher quality military engagement would improve our ability to influence the military in Myanmar to ensure that they abide by basic human rights standards.