KEVIN RUDD: Well I’ve just returned from several days in Burma. This is the first visit by an Australian Foreign Minister to Burma in more than a decade, and it’s the first visit by a western Foreign Minister to Burma since the establishment of the new government.
In Burma, I was able to spend time both with the government – including the President, the Foreign Minister and others. I was also able to spend several hours today with Aung San Suu Kyi in the Australian Embassy residence in Rangoon, together with other democracy leaders as well.
In our discussions with the government, we focused on three things. We focused on, first of all, the state of human rights and democracy in Burma. Secondly, we focused on the state of poverty in Burma, including the overall needs of economic development in what remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. And thirdly, we also spoke about Burma’s role in the foreign policy of the region.
On human rights and democracy, our position with the Burmese government was very clear. We acknowledged the fact that the Burmese government, in its actions last year, agreed to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and that was acknowledged. We also, however, indicated very clearly to the Burmese that this was one step in a long journey. What is required now is of course greater political freedom of operation for Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, and other democratic forces if Burma is to become a fully-fledged democracy.
Secondly, critically, I made it clear in my discussions with the President of Burma that the next and necessary step must be the release of 2000 political prisoners. These prisoners remain as prisoners of conscience within Burma, and the international community awaits action by the Burmese in ensuring that these people obtain freedom. I made a personal plea to the President to that effect. I indicated to him that that single action would have a significant transformative effect on the international community’s attitude to the newly-established government in Rangoon.
I also discussed with the Burmese government the state of poverty within their country and the prospects for economic development. Many people may not know this but Australia is Burma’s second largest donor country after the United Kingdom. The President indicated his support and appreciation for the level of activity by Australia during Cyclone Nargis, and the fact that we were so active on the ground in feeding so many people.
In terms of our ongoing development program with Burma, we also spoke at length about what we’re doing in health, education and in food security. In health, earlier today I had the opportunity of visiting an HIV/AIDS clinic in downtown Rangoon, where Australia supports the work of Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), through what is called the Three Diseases Fund in Burma – work which is designed to deal with the huge challenges of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis as well as malaria. These remain huge disease challenges for the country and the wider region. Australia will continue to support actions in this area, together with our work also in assisted births given the high infant and maternal mortality rates within Burma, together with what we are doing in school education where school attendance ratios are very low.
Today, it was a particularly great privilege for me to spend time with Aung San Suu Kyi. I deliberately invited Janelle Saffin, the Member for Page, to be with me during this visit, because Janelle has been a personal friend of Aung San Suu Kyi’s for the last decade. It was a great opportunity for Janelle to see her again after a long separation in what has been a very strong friendship.
We were able to spend several hours together today at the Australian Embassy residence, and over lunch. We were also able to spend time with senior advisors within the National League for Democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi is in very good spirits. She is in very robust mind. She is a very determined person. She is a person of enormous will, determination and, I would say, just plain political guts.
It was for me a great honour to spend time with her – she is a truly inspirational woman given what she has been through in recent times. She expressed her appreciation for the solidarity and support she had received from hundreds of thousands of Australians over the last many, many years, together with the solidarity and support she has received from many countries around the world.
We will of course maintain our contact, our conversation and our dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, and of course provide support wherever we can for their ongoing participation in the politics of that country.
As I indicated before, we also spent time talking with other democratic leaders while we were in Burma. These are also individuals who carry responsibility in the long term transformation of what has been a terrible set of political circumstances in Burma, in what we hope one day might be a functioning democracy.
The truth is as of now, since the establishment of the new government in Burma, apart from the President’s speech on the 30th of March which indicated possible new directions in democratic reform, possible new directions in economic reform, and possible new directions in investment in health and education, on the ground we have not seen material evidence of that so far. But, as members of the government indicated, this government has been in office now for three months so we wait in anticipation for those changes to unfold in the period ahead.
Finally what I would say is that the Australian government remains ready to continue its engagement with the Burmese government, with Aung San Suu Kyi, and with the leaders of other democratic forces and parties within Burma – both on the great change of delivering democratic and human rights reform within that country, but also in our continued engagement with the absolute necessity of doing something about reducing poverty levels in this country of 50 to 60 million people, which lies within our own region. Happy to take your questions.
REPORTER: What specifically did you discuss with Aung San Suu Kyi?
KEVIN RUDD: We discussed specifically the fact that her response to a recent letter from the Home Affairs Minister in Burma represented a possible shot across the bows to Aung San Suu Kyi in terms of her future freedom of operation. Aung San Suu Kyi has responded to that letter and suggested dialogue with the Home Affairs Minister and therefore the government and the relevant authorities on it. We would encourage the authorities to respond positively to that suggestion. In my discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi, she said that she was prepared to engage in such a dialogue with the government, and she awaits their response to the letter that she’s received.
The second point I’d make arising out of my discussions with her was that she has made plain that she intends to campaign elsewhere within Burma in the period ahead, and that of course is her democratic right. What I would say very clearly to the Burmese authorities, the Burmese government, is that it is absolutely critical that the Burmese government guarantees Aung San Suu Kyi’s security while such a tour of the country is undertaken. And I believe all governments around the world will be looking very carefully at how her security is provided for by the government when she undertakes that tour.
REPORTER: How realistic do you think it is that the Burmese current government will support her in that tour and enable her to continue her involvement in Burmese politics?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, the letter that the government, through the Home Affairs Minister, sent to Aung San Suu Kyi just several days ago was a disturbing development. But the response which she has delivered to the government opens the possibilities of dialogue with the government on these questions, and we would urge the government to undertake that dialogue. You ask me to predict how that is likely to unfold. Anyone who has had a sober view of Burmese history over the last decade plus, let alone over the last 40 or 50 years, will be very hesitant to make a prediction as to how it will precisely unfold. But I’ve got to say, having spent time with Suu Kyi today, she is a person of extraordinary strength, extraordinary determination, and extraordinary courage, as she’s demonstrated so comprehensively by her actions in the past, as a prisoner of conscience.
REPORTER: So what realistically can Australia do for Aung San Suu Kyi then?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, we discussed many of those possibilities with Aung San Suu Kyi. We remain active supporters of the democratic transformation process within Burma. Also, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are engaged in various forms of civil society work and education in elsewhere, and we together with other government and NGOs will look to what we can do to support that work - practical work on the ground.
Apart from that, we presented Aung San Suu Kyi with a globe as a present for her birthday just past, and because we understand that she doesn’t have one. And there’s a very big map of Australia on it as well.
REPORTER: I’m Harry from Reuters. Did she indicate if she was still going go ahead with her plans to visit the city of Bergen this month?
KEVIN RUDD: I don’t want to go into the details of where she plans to visit and when, I think that that’s entirely a matter for her and the NLD. I think it’s clear that she’s resolved to tour in the country, and that is what she intends to do. The details of those arrangements - that is a matter for the NLD to announce at the appropriate time in Rangoon.
REPORTER: You mentioned Australian aid involvement with Burma as the second largest foreign aid donor. How important is that aid and I understand that it will reach 50 million in the next year? Is that enough for the people in Burma?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, Burma is a population of 50 to 60 million. It’s one of the poorest countries in Asia. Education levels are low, the retention rate through primary and secondary schools is low. On basic questions of public health, the spread of infectious diseases, the problem of safe drinking water, of general water sanitation - these are great, particularly when you move from the cities into some of rural and regional areas. So your question’s a valid one. That’s why we intend to work very closely with other members of the international community to see what we can do to expand our aid engagement with the people of Burma in the period ahead. At the same time, we’re very clear-sighted about the need for continued democratic reform within Burma itself. Because we see these things as a package. And that’s the way we’ll approach it, and that’s the way we intend to continue our dialogue with the Burmese government in the future.
REPORTER: And how receptive was the Burmese president to your calls for better human rights and improvements in the country?
KEVIN RUDD: Well I’m sure the Burmese government will speak for themselves, and I’ve had longstanding practice as someone who has worked in foreign policy on and off over the years, not to characterise the position of other governments. They can speak for themselves. All I can say is that I was direct and clear about the need for these changes to occur. Two thousand political prisoners is a lot of political prisoners, and it would be an appropriate and long overdue gesture by the Burmese government, to give these people their freedom. That I believe is the next step being looked for by the international community, and I think all governments around the world would welcome that. And furthermore, I believe it would have a transformative effect in terms of the international community’s view of this newly appointed civilian government in Burma.
REPORTER: Just on a local issue as well…
KEVIN RUDD: Here in Singapore?
REPORTER: Well, sorry, local for Australia, Bob Brown has come out…
KEVIN RUDD: Are there any Bob Browns in Singapore?
REPORTER: No apparently not, just bringing back to home. Bob Brown believes that the Greens will replace Labor as Australia’s second major party within the next 50 years. Do you think that’s likely?
KEVIN RUDD: Do you remember that great scene from ‘The Castle’? He’s dreaming, and Bob’s dreaming. I’m sure it’s a good dream, I’m sure it’s a nice dream for Bob, but he is dreaming.
Australian Labor Party has been around for 120 years. The Greens have been around for a reasonably short period of time. In the history of our party we have been through ups and downs. We have been in government, we have been out of government. But what has endured within the Australian Labor Party is its fundamental and continuing values. That’s why I’ve been a member for 30 years, that’s why Janelle remains active now within the Australian Labor Party and we’ll come through these challenges ahead as well. But Bob, you’re dreaming mate.
REPORTER: Tony Abbott came out and said that he’s behaving as though he is the co-Prime Minster and that he has too much power. Does he?
KEVIN RUDD: I think Tony Abbott’s problems lie with Malcolm Turnbull, and I think it would be a good thing if Tony attended to some of the matters within his own show. I think also, the Australian people would be appreciative of Mr Abbott for the first time, in his political career, coming up with one single positive policy on anything. On artichokes, on strawberries, on anything. But we don’t hear that from Mr Abbott, because he’s captain negative from central casting. And that is the judgement which I believe the Australian people will make of him at the next election.
REPORTER: He’s also called for an early election, saying that because of the situation with Bob Brown that he has too much power. Do we need to go to the polls earlier?
KEVIN RUDD: Tony Abbott has been calling for that for weeks and weeks and probably months and months, probably because he’s read in his market research that it would be a smart thing to say. I think that the Australian people just want the Australian government to get on with the business of governing and deal with the real challenges of the nation and the challenges of the economy.
We’re standing in a part of the world now which is going through huge economic transformations here in Asia. The rise of China - how do we deal that as country; how do we deal with climate change; how do we deal with the foreign policy challenges in our neighbourhood. These are the big things which face us, and which governments are elected to deal with.
I think that it would be useful, instead of calling opportunistically for one thing or another, that Mr Abbott came up with one, single, positive policy on something that mattered. And 12 months into this period of his leadership of the opposition almost, and the period that I faced him prior to that, I don’t actually recall him having any positive to say about anything. And that I think is a huge gap in his political make up, and the people will judge him for it.
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