Burmese president Thein Sein is visiting Australia as tensions thaw between the West and Myanmar. But significant questions surrounding human rights remain.
The four-day visit to Australia by Burmese President Thein Sein, the first by a Burmese leader since the country descended into self-imposed isolation in 1974, marks the increasing international acceptability of the once outcast state. Thein Sein’s arrival in Australia on Sunday reciprocates a visit by Foreign Minister Bob Carr to Myanmar (formerly Burma) last year.
Thein Sein’s visit to Australia reflects the quickening pace of deepening relations between Australia and Myanmar and Australia’s support for Myanmar’s reform process, including increased aid to more than $100 million over the next three years. Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama last November, marking the beginning of a rapid thaw in Myanmar’s international relations and the ending of its international status as a pariah state.
Protesters in Australia have called on the Australian government to press the Burmese leader over continuing human rights concerns in Myanmar. These include continuing abuses by the military and police and two ethnic-based wars, in the northern Kachin State and Shan State. There has also been widespread international concern over attacks against ethnic Muslim Rohingyas in the western Rakhine State starting late last year, in which up to 2000 people are believed to have been killed and more than 80,000 displaced.
Thein Sein, a former general, was hand-picked for the presidency by hard-line predecessor General Than Shwe. Than Shwe is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including directing the violent crackdown against protesters, led by Buddhist monks, in 2007. It has become increasingly apparent Than Shwe handed power to Thein Sein to slowly transition the country towards a form of democracy. The exchange for this political transition was that senior military leaders would be protected from prosecution and the often substantial business interests of their families would remain unaffected.
Since assuming the leadership in 2011, Thein Sein has released political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and allowed the pro-democratic National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to compete in byelections, ahead of an open political competition in 2015.
The NLD recently held internal elections for candidates for the 2015 elections. Assuming the elections proceed without interference, it is widely expected the NLD will win a substantial majority. Thein Sein said last year he would be willing to hand over political power if the NLD achieved a parliamentary majority and Suu Kyi were elected president.
The Burmese leader’s visit to Australia coincides with the launch of the Australia Myanmar Institute in Melbourne today. The AMI, a project between Deakin and Melbourne universities, is intended to develop a greater flow of information between Australia and Myanmar and to promote Myanmar’s reform process.
Participants at the inaugural “Progress, Opportunities and Concerns in Myanmar’s Transition” conference include two former Australian ambassadors to Myanmar, medical, legal and educational specialists, academics and businesses.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of Deakin University’s Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights, and is a formation committee member of the Australia Myanmar Institute