Australian Ambassador discusses Myanmar relations, assistance programmes

15 February 2016
Australian Ambassador discusses Myanmar relations, assistance programmes
Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

The Australian Ambassador to Myanmar Mr. Nicholas Coppel met with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint to discuss a range of issues including Australia-Myanmar relations, his country’s ongoing aid and development programmes, and his country’s satisfaction with the conduct of Myanmar’s recent elections.
The interview was conducted on February 10.
Mizzima: I would like to start with a developmental issue. I think Australia’s engagement with Myanmar revolves around developmental assistance programmes. Can you tell us how this is progressing?
Australian Ambassador: Australia’s got a fairly large development programme in Myanmar, most of it is in the education sector, that’s where we contribute the most and Australia is the largest bi-lateral donor is the education sector. That’s very much focussed on improving access and quality of education, things like teacher training, curriculum, and the schools stipends programme.
The second area of our aid programme is called Governance and that is supporting things like strengthening institutions, and assistance we provided during the elections to the Union Election Commission to ensure the elections were carried out efficiently.
The third area is in support of the peace process because without peace there won’t be development. So the two are very much linked, economic development and peace. And of course we are not a party to the peace process but we are supporting the participants.
So they are the three main areas. But we also have a humanitarian programme and that’s focussed on providing assistance to people in conflict affected and disaster affected areas, some of them in internally displaced people camps and some of them are on the border with Thailand in refugee camps as well. Under the humanitarian programme comes our assistance, for example, following the flooding last year.
So what did you do during the flooding?
As soon as the Government requested assistance from international partners we had what are called family kits, individual boxes which contained basic items for personal hygiene and items for children and blankets in individual boxes, which were stored in our warehouse facilities, which we have in Southeast Asia. [These] were quickly put on board an Australian Airforce plane and were on the ground here very rapidly and then transported from Yangon up to the flood affected areas.
When looking at development what do you think are the main challenges that Myanmar has been facing?
There are many challenges but if you ask what the main one is I think it is human capacity and that is the education and skills of the population. And that is why we focus very much on education in our development assistance programme. Because without an educated workforce it is very difficult to achieve anything, it is very difficult for business to grow if they don’t have a skilled workforce. It is very difficult for institutions of the state, whether it be the courts, the universities, the hospitals, the Human Rights Commission, government ministries and departments, all these institutions it is important that they function well. They all require educated people who are specialists in their fields. So strengthening human capacity is critical for business, is critical for government and both government and business need to be strong going forward.
Are there any university-to-university ties or educational ties between Australia and Myanmar in terms of university-to-university cooperation?
There are particularly strong ties between the Australian National University, which is based in Canberra, and Yangon University. They have a Memorandum of Understanding, but other universities too have developed linkages with universities here. It is growing very much I think. Even in the year I have been here in Myanmar I have seen an increase in the connections between the universities, but also through the aid programme we have a scholarship programme that helps to build ties. We have a number of scholars studying every year in Australia from Myanmar. And the MoU which the Australian National University has with Yangon University is not just academic but is also looking at university administration and how to strengthen that.
You have seen the Myanmar election in November. How do you view the result of the election and also the success of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party?
Well a number of donors including Australia were assisting the Union Election Commission in different ways. Australia’s support was focussed very much on the polling station officer training, developing a training manual and then rolling out that training to all parts of the country so that the polling stations function effectively. Through that assistance, through the assistance to the Union Government of other donors, I think we are pleased with the way elections were conducted and it is clear that the voice of the people was heard and Australia like other countries respects the voice of the people. We look forward to working with the new government as it takes office.
You have been here for nearly two years, if I am not mistaken, how do you see the challenges that Myanmar faces in the transition to democracy?
Well the challenges are many. We’ve mentioned human capacity, that is one, the peace process is another significant challenge - a nationwide ceasefire has been signed with some of the parties but not all of the parties. It is important for that process to continue and I think to proceed fairly quickly if the parties are comfortable with that. As I mentioned there is no development without peace particularly in those conflicted affected areas. Donors and the Government would like to deliver more services, more health and education to these areas which have not been accessible to us because of conflict and this is affecting the people, so this is a significant challenge.
Within the specific area of transition in all countries, in all democratic countries, when there is a change of government there is a process of transition and that has challenges but we have experience in it.  And in Myanmar this is the first time it is transitioning, so I expect there will be new things to be learned as it goes forward, but I think the spirit is there. We have seen cooperation from all sides and I think the international community also is very willing to support the process.
What about the role of the military? I am sure through your defence attaché you must have been engaging with the Myanmar military. How is Australia engaged with the Myanmar military?
It’s a fairly limited engagement. It is focussed very much on areas like international peacekeeping, emergency response to disasters and humanitarian assistance. There’s no training or combat training for example. I think as the country moves forward it is an opportunity to look again at the range of our assistance we would be able to contribute to the professionalization of the military. And that is to say a military that works in the norms of other countries. Very much focussed on external security and respecting civilian authority.
Terrorism is hot topic nowadays. How are you engaged with the Myanmar military in terms of terrorist threats in the country?
Well terrorism is of course a global problem and to defeat it requires international cooperation. Fortunately, Myanmar hasn’t seen international terrorism here in a strong way in recent years and I think the challenges to the country come much more from the internal conflicts which are continuing.  I mentioned we are supporting the peace process, we are not a party to the process but are supporting the participants, and I think that’s the way we will continue to ensure law and order and stability in Myanmar.
I would like to go into the issue of trade and investment. I think there has been an increase in bi-lateral trade between Australia and Myanmar in the last few years. But how much interest is there from Australian investors who are willing to come to Myanmar and what are their concerns?
Trade is growing. It is not very strong. Most of Australia’s exports are wheat and foodstuffs and most of Australia’s imports from Myanmar are fish and vegetables. The total bi-lateral trade is not very strong. We need to grow that as the economies develop. This is mutually beneficial.
It is the same with investment, historically it has been very low, but in 2015 we saw two very significant Australian investments. The first was a banking licence for ANZ which was one of the foreign banks to get a restricted banking licence and they have now established their branch here in Yangon. The second significant investment is from Woodside Energy which was successful in bidding for a number of off-shore gas exploration blocks and they are talking about half a billion dollars in terms of investment. There were also a number of other Australian companies which were also successful in bidding for off-shore blocks, so we have seen quite a strong beginning, having gone from almost nothing in terms of Australian investment in Myanmar and jumping to a high level.
What are the figures like in both trade and investment and also your projections over the next three or four years?
Total bi-lateral trade both goods and services is around 250,000,000 dollars. That’s in both directions. Investment is getting close to 1 billion[dollars] but not quite there yet and I think it will grow going forward. There are other areas [including] construction-related activities, some building products, engineering services, architectural services. Mining is an area which offers enormous potential. Australia has very strong experience in mining in a way which is respectful of local communities and also treats the environment well. And I think there is a demand for that type of mining, quality mining, international best practice in Myanmar.
There is a lot to learn and I think Australian companies are willing to share that knowledge and experience. The new mining law was enacted last year and the regulations are currently being drafted so we will see what that produces in terms of Australian interest. But I am hopeful there will be a growing interest there. Agriculture too. Agri-business, food processing, farming techniques, are areas where Australian has developed a range of expertise which can be shared with Myanmar.

You mentioned about agriculture. What about specific areas like a wineries or dairy where Australia is really strong?
We are strong in both those areas and in many other areas as well. Myanmar of course has its own dairy industry and wine industry too, so I am sure there will be opportunities there. They are very much commercially driven. It is not something in which government says this is where it should happen. It is up to the private sector to make the connection. We can facilitate, we can make introductions, but the two business parties really have to come together and work out some arrangement which is going to be of benefit to the both of them to take it forward. It’s open markets and open investment that enable the connections to be made between the two countries in the private sector.
How about the investment protection agreement between the two countries. What do you think of that?
We don’t have a bi-lateral agreement between Australia and Myanmar but Australia has an agreement with ASEAN which of course includes Myanmar. ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand are all protected through a free trade agreement and provisions in that govern the issues you are talking about so there is no need for a bi-lateral one.
When you look at Myanmar how do you see it in the region? It lies between South Asia and Southeast Asia and between two big neighbours. How do you see Myanmar in the region and how do you see Australia’s role in the region?
I think both Myanmar and Australia have an interest in seeing a stable region. It is in our interests. I mention to you how important trade and investment was for Australia’s economy and growth. From the beginning, we have been dependent on trade and investment and that requires a peaceful environment for shipping and also for the markets. So, we are keen to see the process of integration in the region through a strong ASEAN and peaceful borders for Myanmar. I think everybody wants that and that is why through our development assistance programme we are supporting the peace process because we do see it has very important.
You have, I think, increased engagement with China. How do you see the growth of China and India in the region and the worldwide slow shift towards Asia? How do you see Australia’s role in the world with the growth of China and India in the region?
The growth of China and India is important for the world. It is also of course important for their people. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty through the growth that has taken place in China. So we are very pleased to see that but growth in China and India also creates an enormous demand for raw materials which Australia is well placed to supply. So Australia has had over 25 years of continuous economic growth, very strong export performance and a lot of that has been raw materials going to feed the growth in China’s economy and to a lesser extent but also to India’s economy as well. We are very pleased to see countries growing and becoming strong, and people being lifted out of poverty. I think that is good for the world.
What have been the highlights of your stay here so far?
Well Myanmar is such a large country. I think one of the highlights for me has been the opportunity I have had to travel. I have been up to Rakhine State, Sagaing, Kachin, Mandalay, Tanithariyi, and of course many times to Nay Pyi Taw to meet with Government people there. I have been to southern Shan State and of course I have been to Bagan on holiday. I have enjoyed travelling for work and have enjoyed having holidays here in Myanmar. I recently had two weeks travelling by car and I enjoyed that very much.
But some of the greatest memories, the fondest memories, are the simple things like travelling and looking for something to eat and going to a Myanmar restaurant and tasting some things I haven’t tasted before and being really pleased and delighted at the freshness of the food and new tastes and new flavours. For example, from outside, before you come to Myanmar, you think of curries. But what I discovered here is some wonderful fresh salads, like ginger salad. These are less known I think outside of the country so when one has discovered something new it is always a nice surprise.
I know there are Myanmar citizens who resettled to Australia who became a part of the Australian nation. What is your view on nation-building with different nationalities, different backgrounds? What do you think of Myanmar today, especially nation-building?
You’re right, Australia is multi-cultural society. I think it has been built on accepting people from every country in the world who have come to Australia and been accepted. We have a fairly straight forward pathway so once people are accepted into Australia they come as permanent residents with a lot of entitlements but also a pathway from permanent residency to citizenship which is fairly quick and short and with citizenship comes full rights including rights to vote. And I think that the process of acceptance has been the key to success.
Other things that have helped have been a strong universal education system, so people coming from many different backgrounds have been able to benefit from the education system and then with education to participate in the economy and to participate in society. Inclusion is a word but it is also a process of finding ways where people from many different backgrounds can participate in the economy and can participate in society and to make a contribution and then from that comes the strength.
Because different people from different backgrounds have different perspectives on issues they have different skills and if you can harness that your economy becomes very strong. So we define our society by inclusion and that I think very much has been the strength of our society. Not Australia alone. Other countries too have very strong migration programmes and a strong history of inclusiveness and building their economies, their societies on that multi-cultural background. It is not a unique phenomenon but it is a characteristic of Australia. Myanmar too has many, I think 135, identified ethnic minorities, and the process of including them is I think important to similarly bring out the strengths from that diversity.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Well Australia’s had diplomatic relations with Myanmar since 1952, for more than sixty years. Australian has been part of the region for more than sixty years. It is not a new phenomenon. One of the strengths of Australia is I think it can seem like a Western or European country, but really it is part of the region and Australia sees itself as part of the region. We want going forward to build on that relationship with Myanmar. I think there are new opportunities as the economy opens up and as the civilianization of government takes hold. We can build on that relationship to the mutual benefit of Australia and Myanmar and my job in the embassy as the Australian Ambassador is to contribute to that process. I am really looking forward to doing that going forward for the next few years.