ABC NewsRadio, Drive Program

  • Transcript, E&OE
04 July 2014

CATE CARRIGAN Now Minister I understand this is your first visit to Myanmar and the country which is still very much opening up. What are your impressions so far?

JULIE BISHOP I came to Myanmar back in 1995 when I was a lawyer before I went into politics and so this is my first official visit in my capacity as Foreign Minister, but since I was here 19 years ago there has been incredible change.

Australia recognises the importance of the political and economic and social reforms that are underway in Myanmar and you can see it at every level. There is now a democratisation process underway. There will be an election in November of next year, there are independents and political parties running for office, you can see the infrastructure and growth in the cities.

So there is an enormous amount of change underway here in Myanmar and the Australian Government is wanting to support Myanmar's reforms and we certainly want to see them succeed.

CATE CARRIGAN Well the Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seeking a constitutional change that would allow her to run for the Presidency. Will Australia support that?

JULIE BISHOP Well certainly Australia supports a free and fair election in 2015, and we have urged the Government to conduct that election on a level playing field. So we hope that any constitutional amendments promote a strong, inclusive democratic system in Myanmar and that's a message that I have given to all the political leaders that I've met – that whilst Australia doesn't interfere in the domestic affairs of another country we certainly want to see Myanmar be a peaceful, inclusive democracy and that that will bring peace and prosperity to all of the citizens, to all of the people who live here.

CATE CARRIGAN Because there has been concern that the international community maybe moved too quickly to embrace the Myanmar Government's reform agenda and that was motivated by the lucrative investment opportunities. What would you say to that?

JULIE BISHOP Well of course Myanmar itself aspires to be a much more prosperous country. It is currently the poorest nation in South East Asia, I think it's rated about number 149 on the United Nations Human Development Index. So the people of Myanmar want a better life, they want to see their standards lifted and that's why Australia is responding in terms of supporting education in this country. There are few opportunities for women to get an education. We're concerned about the level of primary and secondary education, let alone tertiary, and so much of our funding is directed to capacity building in Myanmar's greatest asset - and that is its people.

CATE CARRIGAN Now you've raised the issue of human rights with the government there. What particular concerns do you have?

JULIE BISHOP I met with representatives of the Rakhine State and also with representatives of the Rohingya community and they are concerned about inequality, they are concerned about sectarian violence and they are concerned about disadvantage. I raised all of these issues with the President and other Ministers and had a long discussion with Aung San Suu Kyi about how Myanmar can be a more inclusive society.

Australia doesn't just talk about it we actually support the peace process, the ceasefire and we believe that nationwide peace and stability are fundamental to the success of Myanmar's political and economic and social reforms. So we are providing funding to the peace process. We are providing funding to support the urgent humanitarian needs of people affected by conflict across the country and we are concerned about the humanitarian situation, particularly in the Rakhine State, and we have been providing support for that and so we are urging the Government to address the underlying causes of the conflict as well.

CATE CARRIGAN Now you're raising those human rights issues in Myanmar but at the same time the Australian Government is being criticised by the UNHCR for the way it has handled this group, or boatload of Tamil asylum seekers, or reported boatload of Tamil asylum seekers, and they are saying it really does raise concerns that we're breaching our international obligations. So is it hard to be there pushing the human rights in Myanmar and then have this criticism from an organisation like the UNHCR that we may not be meeting our obligations to asylum seekers?

JULIE BISHOP I'm confident that the Australian Government is not only cognisant of its international obligations but abides by them. And I pass on our experience here in Myanmar about what Australia has done as one of the longest standing democracies and how we have a very inclusive immigration policy.

But I also point out to you that we were elected to ensure that the previous policies of the Labor Party when it comes to border protection were not continued and we promised the Australian public that we would stop people funding people smuggling trades and getting on unseaworthy boats and coming to Australia.

The Abbott Government does not want to see, under our watch, men and women and children dying at sea and we believe that about 1200 people drowned at sea under the regime and the border protection laws of the former government and we do not want to see that happen again. So our responsibility is to ensure that people do not pay criminal people smuggling trades money to get on unseaworthy boats and put their lives at risk.

CATE CARRIGAN But what about these concerns that these people are being handed back to a regime that they're fleeing from, that they have concerns that they will face persecution back in Sri Lanka.

JULIE BISHOP Well from Myanmar I'm not going to run a commentary on issues in Australia but I am confident that we are aware of our international obligations and we will abide by them.

CATE CARRIGAN And you're confident these people will be all right, will be looked after?

JULIE BISHOP Well I'm not commenting on any particular operational matter. I'm saying as a matter of principle the Australian Government is aware of its international obligations and will abide by them.

CATE CARRIGAN Well thank you for taking the time to talk to us and we will.. we look…we see.. oh what am I saying? Thank you for your time and we thank you for taking time to talk to us today.

JULIE BISHOP It's been my pleasure.

- Ends -

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