Visiting Myanmar last week, I was struck by this country’s potential and by the commitment of the people I met to significant political and economic reform.
There is still a long way to go in its transition and ongoing work on democracy and human rights will be essential. But I came away feeling positive about the future of Myanmar and about the wide-ranging support from Australia for those reforms. Australia and Myanmar share a common vision for the future, a vision of a stable and prosperous region and one in which Myanmar is able to reach its full potential.
Myanmar was once the food bowl of Asia. It can be again.
Myanmar’s strategic location and growing regional integration open up exciting new possibilities to work together through regional forums, including ASEAN and the East Asia Summit. This year marks the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Australia relations and with it comes an opportunity for Australia and ASEAN to re-commit to this successful partnership. I was very impressed with Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN-related meetings. Australia has committed to building on the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement as well as furthering the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Last week I also spent time in Yangon, where I met industry and business leaders to discuss expanding bilateral trade and investment between Australia and Myanmar.
Economic reforms – including the revised Foreign Investment Law, improved monetary policies and import tariff reductions – have already started rejuvenating Myanmar’s economy.
In the process they have opened up opportunities to increase bilateral trade and investment between our two countries. Until now, this aspect of the relationship has been relatively modest, with total merchandise trade totalling AUS$137 million (US$128.2 million) in 2013.
However, I am confident this will expand quickly. Myanmar’s economic outlook is promising, with growth predicted to reach 8.5 percent in 2014. The country’s natural resources, including oil, gas, minerals and hydropower, can further bolster this. These areas clearly align with Australia’s own strengths and expertise and it is these industries which, to a large extent, have driven our own national development. They are the things we do well.
Australian businesses are increasing their presence in Myanmar in energy and resources but also in the infrastructure, finance and banking sectors, which are all crucial to Myanmar’s future economic prosperity.
Australian experience and technology in these fields is already contributing to sustainable economic development. Australian engineering firms, for example, are involved in the design and construction of roads that will improve Myanmar’s transport and logistics networks.
They are providing environmental and social impact assessments for mining and hydropower projects and advising on the restoration of heritage buildings as well as modern residential complexes in Yangon.
Our mining, oil and gas companies are likewise also contributing expertise to sustainable, responsible and efficient resource development.
Other sectors where Australian expertise aligns with Myanmar’s development needs include agribusiness and education.
We are working closely with Myanmar to support reform in these areas. Australia is one of the largest donors to Myanmar’s education sector, providing AUS$105 million ($98.3 million) from 2012 to 2018 to help strengthen the school system and underpin further learning and skills development.
It is obvious that agriculture plays a vital role in both our countries. In Myanmar it employs some 70pc of the workforce. Australia has specialised expertise that Myanmar can draw on as it develops its agricultural sector, including in areas such as animal and plant genetics and animal husbandry.
Australia’s pre-eminent agricultural research institute, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), is already working in Myanmar to help farmers improve the quantity and quality of food production.
Australia is also supporting the provision of healthcare services, particularly to women and children. The risk of disease is still high in Myanmar and this can constrain economic growth. Australian universities, hospitals and non-government groups are already working with their counterparts in Myanmar’s health sector. Increased collaboration between our respective institutions and researchers in the field of tropical health would be a worthwhile endeavour.
Australia’s aid to Myanmar, which is expected to reach AUS$90 million ($84.3 million) in 2014-15, is already helping create an environment conducive to economic growth and increased trade by strengthening government capacity, promoting peace and stability, and supporting the development of a healthy, educated population.
In meetings with my counterparts, I reiterated Australia’s commitment to increasing our engagement in Myanmar in ways which will encourage trade and economic diversification. Australia has supported Myanmar in its reforms to date and I look forward to a continued partnership as we seek new opportunities for collaboration and expanded trade and investment ties.
This will lead to greater prosperity for all.
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