Australia to monitor democracy and human rights in Burma | Asia Pacific

Australia to monitor democracy and human rights in Burma

Australia to monitor democracy and human rights in Burma

Updated 5 June 2012, 15:22 AEST

Australia's foreign minister Bob Carr says he will press the Burmese government on what its plans are, for a transition to a democratic government.

Mr Carr, who leaves for Burma Tuesday on a three-day visit, plans to meet with President Thein Sein and Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

He says under any democratic constitution, there're no seats reserved for the military.

Currently, Burma's military occupies a quarter of the seats in parliament.

Foreign Minister Carr outlines his visit to Asia Pacific.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Bob Carr, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia

CARR: It's appropriate we go there now, at this stage in the democratisation process. It's an opportunity to talk figures in government, and to encourage and support and sustain and nurture them, on the political transformation, and an opportunity to talk to Opposition figures, like Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, and to see that what we're doing with the government and what we're doing with aid policy and other initiatives, makes sense to her, and to her and her colleagues.

LAM: Aung San Suu Kyi told world business leaders in Bangkok that we'd do well to have some measure of what she called 'healthy scepticism' over Burma's reforms, Is Australia doing this? Are we watching for real democratic progress on the ground, before fully lifting sanctions and rushing in?

CARR: Yes, I think her cautionary warning is well-made. We've always said we reserve the right to re-impose sanctions if there is any lessening in the progress towards democratic norms. But there's no doubt Burma's now engaging with the democratic world in a productive and constructive way, more than it has done for over half a century. Over 600 political prisoners have been released and we've seen the holding of largely free and fair by-elections, as confirmed by the fact that Aung Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy won 43 or the 44 seats.

LAM: Burma may be engaging with the democratic world, but in Burma itself there are still violations of human rights. For instance, the Human Rights Documentations Centre in Burma has noted something like 371 human rights violations since the 2010 polls, so things aren't changing that quickly in Burma, are they?

CARR: I expect to raise human rights with the government and on the advice of our embassy in Burma, to probe about political prisoners, about the treatment of ethnic minorities. Don't forget that we have a human rights dialogue with other countries, and if appropriate, we will settle on a human rights dialogue with Burma. But I think people in Australia, Burmese living outside Burma can be reassured, I will definitely be raising human rights issues as appropriate, on this visit, and in future context, with the government of Burma.

LAM: And minister, you've also said you would encourage Australian business to invest in Burma. Ms Suu Kyi has said that investment should not just mean greater privileges for the already-privileged. Do you Australia has a moral obligation here, to ensure that the new administration in Naypyidaw, does the right thing by the people of Burma?

CARR: I think we do, and I think we should be encouraging the Australian firms going into Burma, to do what I've seen Australian firms do elsewhere in developing countries - and that is to deliver the highest possible standards, when it comes to for example, to occupational health and safety of their employees. I want them to meet the OECD, the best, the highest OECD tests. Burma's a very poor country. It has the worst social development indicators in the region, one quarter of its 50 to 60 million people live in poverty and ten percent of children under five, suffer malnutrition. These are very, very disturbing figures.

LAM: They are indeed, but how mindful are we, that development should not just benefit the elite? What precautions should we be taking here?

CARR: Well, this is where Australia's development assistance comes into focus. We're already the second largest bilateral donor to Burma, we're just pipped by the UK. We provide AUD 63 million, the UK provides 68 million AUD. This is now the fastest AusAid bilateral program, so there're going to be further increases. The program's projected to reach at least 100-million Australian dollars, by 2015, and education is going to be the flagship of Australian aid. I think Australians will be inspired and proud, as they see Australia's lead role in humanitarian aid get into focus.

LAM: Yes but the aid that we provide aside, how do we hold the regime in Naypyidaw accountable to the people of Burma? You mentioned trying to encourage them to uphold OECD standards, when Australian companies move in. But a quarter of Burma's parliamentary seats are still reserved for the military. It's a little naive not to expect military influence, if not coercion in decision-making?

CARR: Well, I'd expect the government to report to me, as they reported to other visitors, including (the US Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton on her recent visit on what their plans are, for transition to democratic government. And of course, under any democratic constitution, you don't have seats reserved for the military. I'd hope that Burma has learnt from the progress of Indonesia, which once had a constitution heavily weighted to the military, but which now measures up, according to Freedom House, very very well, when it comes to democratic norms.

LAM: And will you be taking up this issue of military involvement in parliament with the government, when you're Naypyidaw?

CARR: We'll be in discussions about the democratic transition, be making the point that a thorough-going democratic government does not have seats reserved for the military. But I'd like to think that the impetus for reform already underway in Burma, already accomodates that notion.

LAM: And finally, Bob Carr, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi was of course in Bangkok last week, her first trip abroad in more than twenty years. Will you be inviting her to Australia?

CARR: I'll be exploring with her, if she has time in her schedule, with all her commitments in Burma, and her other commitments abroad, to consider Australia. It'd certainly be a great honour to have her here.

LAM: Bob Carr, thanks very much.

CARR: Thank you, Sen.

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