Hamish McDonald, Rangoon June 06, 2012
Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr arrived in Burma last night for talks with government and opposition leaders that will guide Australia's evolving policy on engagement with this once-shunned country.
Senator Carr is due to meet the National League for Democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi later today in Rangoon, the largest city, as well as recently released figures from the 1988 student uprising.
Tomorrow he flies to the new capital Naypyidaw for meetings with government ministers and possibly President Thein Sein, before inspecting Australian aid projects on Friday.
His aim with the president is to encourage him to stay with the democratic reforms his government as pursued since taking office in March last year, which have led to an easing of sanctions by Western nations.
Australia cut its personal sanctions list from 392 names to 126, and in the coming financial year is raising aid to Burma by 30 per cent to $63.8 million.
"I am confident all figures in the government would want to avoid the risk of a revival of sanctions were there to be a retreat from the brave reform program of President Thein Sein," Senator Carr said.
"We've got the opportunity to fine tune our most recent decision on sanctions and I'll be making a decision after I talk to people in the government and people in the opposition," he added.
Political reforms and the release of many political prisoners had been "heart-warming", Senator Carr said. "The case for engagement is overwhelming."
In a meeting with Ms Suu Kyi last August Mr Thein Sein, a retired army general and former prime minister in the previous military regime, persuaded her to participate in a political system she regards as deeply flawed.
She and 29 NLD colleagues were elected to parliament in by-elections two months ago. Last week she exercised her new freedom with a visit to Thailand, after being confined to the country for 24 years for fear of not being allowed to return, even to visit her dying husband and their two sons in Britain.
The easing of sanctions has unleashed a rush of potential foreign investors, anxious to grab the early opportunities in a resource-rich country that stagnated under military rule for 50 years.
Mr Thein Sein's government is anxious to capitalise on this interest quickly. In recent months it has unified multiple currency exchange rates into a single rate linked to market forces, improved restrictive import and export controls, and passed a new investment law.
"There's a sense of urgency among government people, a real keenness to do stuff," said Sid Myer, the chairman of Melbourne University's Asialink institute who led a delegation of Australian banking, legal and information technology professionals to Burma last month.
"There's a realisation that there's a general election in 2015 and in order for this government to have any chance of maintaining its position it has to make real progress on pressing issues."
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