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Message from Australia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Alexander Downer, to the Committee for Democracy in Burma
On the Commemoration of Free and Fair Elections in Burma in May 1990
25 May 2002, Villawood, Sydney

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First, let me wish you well for your important commemoration event today. The unconditional release of the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on 6 May certainly was most welcome in the lead-up to this return to democracy. However, the task is far from complete and will require further efforts from all concerted within Burma and in the international community, including Australia.

Understandably, 27 May is an important anniversary in Burma, as well as for the Burmese community in Australia and all Australians who share your deep concern, as it marks the anniversary of the 1990 elections in Burma. It was on that day that the Burmese people expressed their unequivocal preference for democratic government. The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi who was then under house arrest won 82 per cent of the vote. That election results has never been honoured.

While the recent release of Aung San Suu Kyi has been a most welcome development, let me assure you that my Government's policy remains focused - as it always has been - on the key goals of advancing the cause of democracy and promoting greater respect for human rights in Burma. The Government will continue to call for the release of the remaining political prisoners, the ongoing re-opening of NLD offices and the opening of a substantive political dialogue with the NLD and Burma's ethnic groups.

Australia's Policy Approach

I wish to take this opportunity to outline in detail Australia's approach to Burma. The Australian Government's long-term interest in an independent, prosperous, peaceful and stable Burma, which can play a full and constructive role in regional political and economic affairs. Australia's approach to Burma is governed by our key goals of advancing democracy and promoting greater respect for human rights.

With these goals in mind, the Government continues to consistently call on the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to respect human rights, including political freedom, and to release all remaining political prisoners unconditionally.

We pursue our concerns energetically and consistently in Rangoon, through our Ambassador and our Embassy, as well as regionally and internationally. That said, like others in the international community, we are painfully aware that any advances with political reform and human rights in Burma will be slow and incremental at best.

At the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC) Meeting in Hanoi in 2001 I met with the Burmese Foreign Minister, U Win Aung, and expressed the Government's concerns about the human rights situation in Burma and urged the Burmese Government to address the issue. I also encourage further progress with the ongoing political reconciliation talks underway between the SPDC and Aung San Suu Kyi. I have welcomed hearing since the NLD leader's release that she judges that her talks with the SPDC have now advanced beyond the confidence-building stage. Needless to say, we hope that these discussions will continue building momentum.

Encouraging the SPDC to undertake a more fulsome dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as opening up this dialogue to ethnic groups when both the SPDC and the NLD leader judge that the process can be expanded, necessarily and inevitably requires some degree of engagement with the Burmese Government. This has resulted in the Australian Government opening up dialogue with the SPDC on some specific areas where we assess some progress can be made in advancing democratic reform and human rights.

This should not be regarded as adopting a "soft approach". We have not - and do not - resile from criticising undemocratic steps taken by the Burmese Government or raising our concerns about human rights. The Burmese Government knows that. Australia will continue to work with others in the international community, including through the UN system, to promote reform in Burma. However, it is not an easy task.

The simple reality is that no one country's policy approach towards Burma has succeeded to date. Faced with this reality, we have been adopting some creative methods, such as the human rights workshops and, more recently, judicial training for Burmese judges, to take these issues forward.

Australia's decision to continue the human rights workshops - with two more workshops to be held in July - and to support judicial training is based on our assessment that these activities can make a modest contribution to improving the human rights situation in Burma. We harbour no illusions about the difficulty of promoting policy change in Burma, but wish to try to bring about some advances with human rights where we can. We also wish to contribute to preparing Burmese officials and the judiciary for democracy in Burma. The Australian Government will continue to take creative approaches in expanding the Human Rights Initiative as part of its effort in promoting democratic reform and human rights in Burma. However, the Government continues to monitor the situation in Burma and will proceed carefully and cautiously.

Australia's aid to Burma also recognises the severe humanitarian situation there. Of particular concern is the rapid pace at which the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma is expanding. HIV/AIDS is affecting a wide cross-section of the population in Burma and will have enormous social and economic impacts. The Australian Government considers efforts to counter the HIV/AIDS epidemic a high priority for international development and will continue to fund a number of projects for primary health care and HIV/AIDS control projects.

In addition to HIV/AIDS, poverty, poor nutrition, food security and inadequate health services contribute to Burma's poor health status. The Australian Government is particularly concerned that an estimated one in three children suffer from malnutrition. Consequently, Australia is developing a project to address nutritional anaemia amongst women and children. In addition, Australia and international non-government organizations, along with UN agencies, will continue to play an important role in addressing Burma's development problems at the community level, with support from the Australian aid program.

Outside Burma, Australia provides health, shelter and food assistance to refugees in camps on the Thai-Burma border and is part funding a distance education project delivering community management and English language courses for Burmese refugees in Thailand. We are also helping to reintegrate refugees returning to Burma from refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Conclusion

The Australian Government's priority in regard to our broad Burma policy is clear - it is to do what we can to bring about positive change, end human rights abuses and return to democratic government. This approach is based on the premises that we honestly believe that activities such as the human rights workshops and judicial training, as well as much-needed humanitarian assistance, will be worthwhile contribution to the lives of people in Burma. We owe it to the Burmese people to remain open to creative ideas which will advance their desire for democracy - a wish, which although short-lived on 27 May 1990, remains as strong now as it was then.

Thank you.