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Australian FM meets President U Thein Sein

By Staff Writers
July 4 - 10, 2011

AUSTRALIAN Foreign Minister Mr Kevin Rudd met President U Thein Sein and other senior government figures in Nay Pyi Taw on July 1, a day after arriving for a three-day visit.

A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed Mr Rudd, who is the first Australian Foreign Minister to visit Myanmar since 2002, met U Thein Sein, as well as Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin and speaker of the Amyotha Hluttaw, U Khin Aung Myint.

The meeting was President U Thein Sein’s first with a high-ranking Western official since he was sworn in on March 30. In recent months a European Union delegation and US Senator John McCain have held discussions with Vice President Thiha Thura U Tin Aung Myint Oo, while US State Department official Mr Joseph Yun and UN envoy Mr Vijay Nambiar met the foreign minister.

Mr Rudd urged the Myanmar government to proceed with democratic reform, reducing poverty, economic development and engaging with the world on foreign policy issues.

During the July1 visit to Nay Pyi Taw he also appealed to President U Thein Sein and members of the government for clemency in regard to 2000 political prisoners who are currently incarcerated.

Mr Rudd said the president had responded that time and the circumstances of events would determine if a release of prisoners would occur.

“I reiterated that this must be the next step and would be fundamental to [international] political opinion [in regard] to the new government.” If this did not occur, it would be a “real impediment” for countries like the United States to engage with the Myanmar government.

Mr Rudd said that as Myanmar’s second largest aid donor, Australia was prepared to further help in tackling malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids. He had also discussed the importance of food security and education improvements.

Mr Rudd said he had come to Myanmar to learn. “I have not been here before and I am the first Australian foreign minister to visit in nearly a decade, as well as the first western foreign minister since the new government was elected.”

Since then, the only indication of Myanmar’s stated move towards democracy had been President Thein Sein’s speech of March 30 that mentioned democratic change, economic reform and action on health and education.

“We are waiting to see what happens,” Mr Rudd said. “The international community is also waiting.”

Mr Rudd also met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the aid community on July 2 before flying out of Myanmar.

In a statement before his arrival Mr Rudd’s office said he was travelling to Myanmar at a “critical juncture” in the country’s history and would “discuss ways Australia can support positive reform and development”.

“I will use these meetings to reiterate Australia’s long-standing calls for genuine progress towards national reconciliation and democratic reform,” Mr Rudd said.

The statement said Australia had increased funding for its aid program from A$29.1 million (US$30.7 million) in 2009-10 to A$47.6 million ($50 million) in 2011-12, and was “on track to reach A$50 million ($52.5 million) by 2012-13”.

The foreign minister arrived in the country one day after the government issued a warning to the National League for Democracy to stay out of politics and one Australia-based analyst said the Myanmar authorities’ handling of this issue had the potential to define future bilateral relations.

“While politics in Myanmar continues to be shaped by [Daw] Aung San Suu Kyi’s defiance, foreign political leaders like Kevin Rudd walk a fine line between endorsing the current Myanmar government and cheering for radical, potentially disruptive, change,” said Dr Nicholas Farrelly, from the Australian National University in Canberra. “The challenge for all sides is to find workable, common goals. The current trend is towards incrementally deeper engagement but that could change very quickly depending on political and social events in Myanmar.”

Australia maintains economic sanctions against Myanmar but these are targeted at individuals and, for the most part, symbolic. Bilateral trade between the two nations topped US$100 million in 2010, up 14 percent on the previous year, according to Australian government statistics. Of this figure, almost 60pc is wheat exports to Myanmar.

Dr Farrelly, who is also the founder of the New Mandala website hosted by the ANU, said that while a “photo opportunity” with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be top of Mr Rudd’s agenda, he would likely seek to “take the pulse” of both the new government and the opposition.

“There is much for Kevin Rudd to learn beyond the superficial impressions of the country which tend to dominate popular analysis,” he said.

Mr Rudd, a former diplomat who speaks fluent Mandarin, would also be “very keen to understand Chinese ambitions in Southeast Asia through the prism of their activities in Myanmar”.

“For Australia this is an issue of great interest and is one that may distinguish Rudd’s approach from some other recent visitors.”