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Burmese President Makes Historic Trip to Australia

  • Phil Mercer

President of Burma Thein Sein (R) meets with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, March 18, 2013.

President of Burma Thein Sein (R) meets with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, March 18, 2013.

In the first visit to Australia by a Burmese head of state since 1974, President Thein Sein began talks Monday (March 18) with officials in Canberra. Political reform, social development and trade will be on the agenda, while human rights groups are urging the Australian government to press the Burmese leader on the treatment of Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities

Australia has acknowledged recent reforms by the Burmese government by easing more restrictions and says it will send a defense attaché and a trade commissioner to its Southeast Asian partner.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the measures were part of growing Australian support for Burma as it continues to build a democracy and strengthen human rights. However, Canberra’s arms embargo will remain in place.

Prime Minister Gillard called it a “first step” toward normalizing defense relationships and also announced aid aimed at helping pro-democracy groups.

"Today I am delighted to announce an important new component of our aid program, a partnership for reform between our two countries," she said. "A $20 million commitment to strengthen democratic institutions, deliver human rights training, improve economic governance and promote the rule of law."

President Thein Sein appeared at a news conference Monday with the prime minister, and said he believes the two countries are destined to be partners.

He says he hopes that Australia will be generous in sharing her knowledge and experiences. He says he feels certain that relations will now enter a new and special phase.

Human rights campaigners protested at the Burmese Embassy in Canberra and Parliament House at the start of President Thein Sein’s visit. Their message is that human rights must come before trade and investment in discussions between the Australian government and the Burmese leader.

Activists are alleging that hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma, while they accuse the military of committing abuses against minority groups, including Rohingya Muslims.

Sean Turnell, an economist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, who closely watches events in Burma, says Australia must address these allegations.

“This is an issue, of course, that should be of concern to everyone, but it is an issue that is of concern to Australia because ultimately groups like that may well end up as part of the refugee flow to this country," he said. "So, I would imagine even for selfish reasons it would be an issue that Australia might be interested in talking to the Burmese president about.”

Thein Sein, a former general, took office in March 2011, after Burma’s first election in 20 years. He has led a process of reform after decades of military rule.

In Canberra, he has met the Prime Minister Julia Gillard, along with other senior officials and business leaders. The Burmese president arrived in Australia following a trip to New Zealand, where he was promoting his country as a destination for foreign investment. Burma is eager to revitalize its economy by overhauling its infrastructure, including roads, hotels and airports.