Myanmar and Australia’s International Women’s Development Agency

22 Feb | '2021

The Australian sense of a fair-go for our neighbours extends to compassion for the plight of many people around the world. This is often demonstrated through Australian government aid, through private charities and through the work of Australian volunteers and NGOs abroad. Australia is, typically, measured in its approach to foreign affairs and sensitive to the complexities of different nations. We speak up for our values and respect the rights of others to shape their own values. We have a strong record of international cooperation, and stand for the rules based order.

We know that the people of Myanmar have faced significant difficulties for many years. I don’t intend to delve into the complexities right now, only to make a few comments in support of peaceful resolution of the current situation in a manner that has regard for the human rights of everybody in Myanmar. Myanmar has more than one-third of its population living in extreme poverty. It is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, and democracy is its best pathway to prosperity.

I do support the spirit of this motion, though not the exact text of it. There are risks in managing this matter that I believe the foreign minister is handling with appropriate care. Since 2017, Akhaya Women in Myanmar and Australia’s International Women’s Development Agency, the IWDA, has delivered a unique Women Supporting Women mentoring program. Supported by DFAT, I myself have been participating in the program to mentor a newly elected MP over the last 12 months. One practical measure that we can take is to make the most of our direct networks to encourage and support them. In parallel, speaking in this place does serve to send a public message to Myanmar that Australia is watching and that we want the best for its people.

In early 2019 on a parliamentary delegation to Bangladesh, hosted by Save the Children and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I saw firsthand Australian aid assisting approximately 850,000 Rohingya refugees and the surrounding Bangladeshi host communities of 400,000 locals at Cox’s Bazar. I’ve spoken previously in this place about the human rights violations that were targeted at the Rohingya in Rakhine State. Without revisiting the detail of that now, I wish to simply make the observation that it underscores the seriousness of the situation in Myanmar.

I share the broad bipartisan concerns in this place regarding reports of the actions of the Myanmar military and the detention of State Councillor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. We are definitely deeply concerned about the developments that have occurred in Myanmar over the past weeks, including the detention of eminent Australian economist Professor Sean Turnell. We call for the immediate release of Professor Turnell and Myanmar’s elected leaders and others who have been arbitrarily detained since 1 February. We are extremely concerned about reports of an increased military presence on the streets of Yangon, Mandalay and the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and we’re deeply saddened by reports of the deaths of three civilian protesters in the last few days. The use of deadly force or violence against civilians is simply unacceptable. We continue to strongly urge the Myanmar security forces to exercise restraint and refrain from violence in response to peaceful protests.

Australia has been a longstanding supporter of Myanmar and its democratic transition and it’s hard for all of us to see so much progress reversed. I am very concerned that Myanmar’s fragile decade-long democratic transition has faltered. The military should respect the rule of law and resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms. The immediate release of all civilians leaders and others who have been unlawfully detained is the urgent first step necessary to begin the restoration of the democratic transition. A peaceful reconvening of the national assembly, consistent with the results of the November 2020 general election, should urgently follow. The people of Myanmar deserve peace and economic development out of widespread poverty, which, indeed, only democracy can afford them.

We, here in Australia—the Australian government, the foreign minister and, indeed, the Prime Minister—are aware of all of the media reports coming out of Myanmar. We are monitoring the situation in the press very, very closely. I thank members opposite for they have delivered here today in the chamber and for their contribution to this very sensitive issue around the conflict in Myanmar.

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