More engagement, not less, with Myanmar

Engagement makes a difference

Mish Khan

Society and culture, Development | Southeast Asia

20 August 2018

As the outcry against Myanmar’s military grows, Australia must continue to create and sustain ties on a people-to-people basis, Mish Khan writes.

Renewed calls for Australia to boycott its military relationship with Myanmar follow broader calls to limit engagement such as tourism and even educational interaction with the turbulent country, after unacceptable bloodshed in Rakhine State.

This is despite the $400,000 per annum military-related funding being allocated towards disaster relief, peace keeping and English language training.

The Australia-Myanmar defence relationship focuses on reinforcing the role of a professional military in a democracy, and Australia maintaining an arms embargo towards Myanmar, which has been in place since 1991. Currently and for the foreseeable future, Myanmar’s military has a constitutionally-mandated presence in Parliament and holds a tight grasp over the transition process.

While it makes perfect sense to avoid combat-related funding, pretending any change for the better in Myanmar’s military will manifest out of nowhere is not a helpful approach.

More than ever, the tension between international calls for boycott from bodies like Amnesty International, and Australia’s insistence on maintaining a pro-engagement approach with Myanmar, characterise the Australia-Myanmar relationship.

At an event in Yangon in late June, Australian ambassador to Myanmar Nicholas Coppell stated “Myanmar needs more, not less engagement.” He highlighted the impact of isolation and sanctions on the ordinary Myanmar people, who have already suffered under decades of military dictatorship.

Uniquely, Australia has maintained 65 years of diplomatic engagement with Myanmar over periods when many others bowed out. 1952 saw the establishment of our first delegation to Burma, with full ambassadors being posted from 1956. Even at the peak of military rule, when the relationship was strained, ambassadors were never withdrawn and an involved push for change was preferred over punitive sanctions. In 2012, Australia lifted targeted travel and financial sanctions to encourage further democratic reform.

Today, we have a growing trade relationship, an $84 million development assistance program focused on education, roughly fifty Australia-Awards scholarship recipients from Myanmar each year, 35 AVI (Australian Volunteers for International Development) volunteers in Myanmar at any given time and an increasing number of Australian university students undertaking short and long-term study under DFAT’s New Colombo Plan sponsorship.

I am currently finishing my law degree in Myanmar under the New Colombo Plan program, and am part of the people-to-people aspect of Australia’s pro-engagement policy. It is clear that engagement makes a difference.

While some call for our academic institutions to boycott ties with Myanmar’s universities despite their need for assistance, the highly unique presence of Australian students around campus for years now at the historic Yangon University—where one would ordinarily struggle to find foreign undergraduates—in itself conveys an innovative, deep and genuine interest from Australia towards Myanmar.

Combined with other activities such as co-organising conferences, hosting researchers and visiting professors and collaborating on research, academic staff and students bear a warm appreciation towards Australia’s engagement on the ground. This will endure regardless of what twists or turns emerge in the next stage of Myanmar’s political path.

Suggestions to alienate Myanmar fail to appreciate the complexities of the actors at play in the nation’s reform process. For instance, it would be wrong of me to suggest that all my peers at Yangon University are activists, future saviours of the nation and ideal embodiments of reform. In fact, some are related to cronies while others come from military families.

Regardless, these students will grow to become major players in Myanmar’s politics, business and society. They will benefit from high-quality education delivery that the poorly-funded universities struggle to achieve without external help. They benefit from a level of international exposure and interaction that allows them to form critical and comparative thinking skills, values, beliefs and ideals that would become far more alien under a cold, dark and isolated tertiary education system.

Furthermore, my Myanmar friends selected to study masters-level scholarships in Australia are among the brightest, most driven people I know. Many even joke that they experienced such strong growth that they now struggle to find enough spaces to contribute their knowledge.

Of course, there is a difference between throwing money at a problematic state and calling it engagement, versus carefully curating and prioritising different streams of engagement including development assistance, military training, education, people-to-people links and peace process support.

I believe Australia, for the most part, gets this balance right.  As Nicholas Coppell commented in Yangon, Myanmar is one of the least known and understood countries in Asia. This gap in understanding and knowledge can only be breached by greater engagement. More contact is important, and must continue.

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