Kangaroo in corner of emerging neighbour
An op-ed I wrote, published in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:
Seven Australian heroes from World War II lie among the fallen at Rangoon’s War Cemetery, their graves neatly tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
They were mostly RAAF and mostly in their 20s, their young lives cut short.
It’s as moving a reminder of the high cost of war as any of our war memorials.
Australia after 1945 reinvented itself as “the lucky country”.
But Burma kept suffering, especially under the military dictatorship that took hold of the country in 1962.
In this country of more than 55 million people, 2400 women a year don’t survive childbirth. Less than half of the country’s five million children will complete five years of primary education. This generation of children will have a lower level of basic education than their parents.
Myanmar – it’s now time to call it by the name it wants – is the poorest country in South East Asia. Less than 1 per cent of national income is spent on education and health.
That’s why it was one of the honours of my life to go to the Thit Kyar Primary School and an early childhood development centre at Kungyangon, 90 minutes drive from Yangon.
They were equipped with textbooks and teachers funded by Australia.
Years from now, we will be thanked for what we’ve done to open schools across the country.
When I was there last week I laid down a new Australian policy.
I believe we are making a new friend for Australia, spanning the political divide inside Myanmar.
President Thein Sein, a former army general, has bravely steered his country away from single party, military-backed dictatorship toward multi-party rule. I visited Aung San Suu Kyi in her home, made famous in the movie The Lady. She is a true hero of democracy, under house arrest for 15 years before winning a seat in parliament.
And that’s the measure of the reforms. The opposition can now beat the government in by-elections. More than 600 political prisoners have been released. There are negotiations with ethnic minorities.
It is time for us to fully engage and that means lifting sanctions.
We want more democratic reform – but the way to do it is no longer through coercion but through co-operation.
I met young citizens of Myanmar who came along to our embassy to talk.
They included Hlaing Myat, who from his Facebook page operates as a “CJ”, a citizen journalist. Others were a singer, a dentist, a cardiac surgeon and a development worker.
They confirm that civil society has grown to the point where it is pushing the government to further reforms and won’t settle for a return to the old ways.
Ms Suu Kyi said to me that the impetus for reform has got to start coming from within, the country not pushed from without.
We Australians have got to offer help.
When other South East Asian nations have broken free of poverty, they became good customers. So it’s in our interest to help Myanmar – but it’s what a good global citizen does anyway.
When I met the President, I said Australia could help by transferring to Myanmar our regulatory framework for mining development approvals.
Without something like it, the country could be despoiled with “wild west” activity – mercury spills, land subsidence, miners buried alive.
And Ms Suu Kyi told me she’s afraid of a reckless rush of investment and development.
But it’s education where we’ll make a real difference.
When I visited a preschool I was surprised by the proud mums and dads who turned out.
Their kids’ hair had been neatly plastered down and they wore crisp white and blue uniforms.
There on the corner of the blackboard was a kangaroo, an AusAID symbol.
Australia is a good neighbour. In Paul Keating’s words, we find security in South East Asia’s economic and political development.
Australia advances its own interests in South East Asia but does so by helping out a country held back for decades by military dictatorship. Those war dead would have cause to be proud.