A new role for Australia on Myanmar?
A new role for Australia on Myanmar?
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

A new role for Australia on Myanmar?

Recent changes in Myanmar are too numerous to list, but they are remarkable to anyone who knows the country. The National League for Democracy has re-registered, its supporters wave its flag on the streets of Yangon (see photo below), and Suu Kyi addresses rallies in the capital Nay Pyi Taw. Her once banned image is everywhere in Yangon (see above). By-elections for 48 seats will be held on 1 April and while they may not be perfect, they are expected to be free and fair enough to see NLD members sitting in the next parliamentary session, including Suu Kyi.

Australia's new Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, came to office last week promising policy continuity, including on Myanmar, the country still called 'Burma' in Canberra. But is now the time to hold the line when the country is changing so rapidly?

Canberra needs to ask whether its goal is best achieved by continuing with sanctions or whether progress can best be achieved by recognising developments on the ground and moving, in tangible ways, to partner Myanmar's leaders rather than confront them. It will be time for full government-to-government relations. Lifting or suspending all sanctions should be the first step along this path.

For a moment, last July, it seemed like Carr's predecessor Kevin Rudd was in the vanguard and taking a bold initiative. He was the first Western foreign minister to meet the reformist new President Thein Sein, even before opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had her pivotal meeting with the President on 19 August where she determined his intentions in changing the country were sincere.

After that groundbreaking visit, Rudd was optimistic but cautious. But there was no significant initiative, even as other foreign ministers such as Alan Juppe, William Hague and Hillary Clinton appeared to steal Rudd's thunder and his first bold step was over-shadowed.

On 9 January, Australia did reduce the number of people on its list of targeted financial sanctions and travel restrictions. These sanctions have had a debatable impact, especially in trying to change the country's behaviour. With most of the world never off limits to Myanmar's leaders and Asia's banking system at their disposal, these so-called 'smart' or 'targeted' sanctions have had only symbolic effect.

To be sure, they have been a sometimes expensive irritant but they have never ring-fenced the country as their architects intended. The only known use was against a Burmese accounting student in Sydney. They were best viewed as a symbolic act of solidarity with the formerly suppressed opposition, but they are looking dated.

Unlike the US, whose sanctions are embedded in legislation, or the EU, which must change a consensus-based common position, Australia can act with speed, as the sanctions are solely the prerogative of the executive. Canberra is already on the way to significantly expanding its aid program in the country and is the second-largest donor after the UK. Australia should also free itself to find out how best it can assist what will be a complex transition.

For example, rather than policing the sanctions list, it could be time for the Treasury, Finance, and Reserve Bank of Australia to explore how their experience and expertise might be of assistance as Myanmar synchronises its formal and black market exchange rates and deals with a myriad of macro-economic reforms. It could build on past links and look at resurrecting the human rights training initiative of the early 2000s and, in doing so, explore a new relationship with the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.

Sanctions have had their day in Myanmar. Australia should not move the goal posts and find new reasons why restrictions need to be kept in place. It would be clumsy, for example, to try to use sanctions to force a solution to the outstanding ethnic conflict involving the Kachin armed group, as such an approach puts pressure only on the government side and encourages the other to fight on for a better deal. Nor should they be used to address issues on the bilateral agenda such as people smuggling.

The changes in Myanmar have been wide and dramatic in the last year. They continue at a rapid pace that is acknowledged by all but few hardened sceptics, mostly outside the country. There is an opportunity for Australia to be in step with its region and take a new approach as Myanmar heads towards the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014. It should be based on engagement and partnership rather than reprobation.

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