This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 28 September 2015
Like most of the Western democracies, Australian policy toward Myanmar was long bogged down in the stalemate between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the former military regime.
Since the government of President U Thein Sein took power in 2011 key aspects of Australian thinking about Myanmar have been reinvigorated.
A round of reciprocal visits, including senior ministers and heads of state, has brought opportunities to make announcements about scholarships, aid funding and new areas of cooperation. Even on sensitive topics like defence, the two sides have gradually created more space for collaboration.
This is important because, as recent events in Canberra show, no government lasts forever. Earlier in September, Malcolm Turnbull seized power Down Under. It was a characteristically Australian change of leader: by the vote, behind closed doors, with no blood spilled.
As prime minister, Mr Turnbull has already sought to refresh the cabinet, introducing younger faces and a bolder “21st-century” policy agenda.
Australia now has its first female defence minister, who joins the popular foreign minister, Julie Bishop, in the job of securing Australia’s international interests. Ms Bishop retains her position based on a track record of successful leadership across a gamut of tricky topics.
She has also been heavily involved with Myanmar affairs, seeking to position Australia as a constructive partner for the country’s reformers. When she met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013, the foreign minister unveiled a photo the pair had taken together back in 1995. Ms Bishop said the earlier meeting with the pro-democracy leader was inspiration for her own political career.
Given that Ms Bishop travelled to Myanmar in 2014, what she would realise is that the November election offers a special chance to bolster Australian engagement and to capitalise on the major investments that have already been made.
For a start there is the scholarship program, which goes from strength to strength. Since 2012 scores of talented Myanmar students have studied in Australia where many have taken masters degrees, while some are now readying for the final sprint of their doctoral studies. In dozens of fields, this group will prove profoundly important for the long-term advancement of Myanmar-Australia relations.
There is also a rising cohort of Australian entrepreneurs who are working hard to help build parts of the new Myanmar economy. In technology, education, the media, arts, mining and law, there are creative efforts underway to enhance Myanmar’s increasingly vibrant business culture. I won’t embarrass the key players further by mentioning names, but needless to say they are on the frontline in what was, until recently, Southeast Asia’s most trying commercial environment.
The Australian embassy in Yangon has also tripled in size since President U Thein Sein took power. Its range of day-to-day activities is unprecedented – from law-enforcement cooperation and humanitarian assistance, to trade facilitation and educational exchange.
Yet not everything has been handled with flair. Bucking a widely endorsed global trend, the Australian government under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott unexpectedly reverted to calling the country Burma. This peculiar nostalgia meant that in 2014 an Australian naval vessel was announced as docking at the “Port of Rangoon”.
Of course such games about what to call the country’s former capital are a distraction when so much important work is still to be done. Early and substantial Australian commitments to the ongoing flood relief effort are one example; so is the joint statement released by a number of Yangon-based embassies in response to the exclusion of Muslim candidates from the election.
The big task is to decide on what should happen next in Myanmar-Australia relations. A country like Australia needs to be ready for different outcomes following the November 8 poll, but should be betting on further positive changes to the political climate.
What does this mean in practice? A great many of the people who will be central to the country’s future are not household names. Today they are officials, politicians, academics, activists, journalists and businesspeople in their 30s and 40s. They are part of the generation that often missed out on international exposure during the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) years.
Happily, Australians have got to know them well since President Thein Sein took charge. It is the aptitude and commitment of this rising generation that will count during the difficult decades ahead when Myanmar will need to find its own way out of the dictatorial darkness.
Australian politicians, officials and ordinary citizens should continue playing a quietly constructive role. They should also anticipate that after the election new problems will emerge. It will not be smooth sailing, no matter who wins the vote.
As the recent Australian experience shows, political figures come and go. What counts is that wise leadership and patient international diplomacy can offer stability even in a storm.
Nicholas Farrelly is Director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala.