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Burma: Real and Enduring Change Is Not Assured - But the Glimmers of Hope Must Not Be Stifled

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For much of the last 50 years only a true optimist would have believed there were prospects for real change in Burma. For all that time the people of Burma have suffered repression.

Burma's former military regime appeared impervious to international criticism of its human rights record, unwilling to engage in meaningful dialogue with democratic and ethnic leaders or the international community.

So when President Thein Sein was sworn into office in March last year, most observers were understandably sceptical when he spoke about reform.

For much of last year, the jury was out. Watching from London and Canberra, we sensed something was afoot. We felt it was important to signal our support for the nascent reform steps of the new government. We both have visited Burma and have seen these changes at first-hand. Through visits and other signals to the government, we sought to encourage the flickering flame of reform.

At the same time, we kept our sanctions measures in place. Only real reform would deserve reciprocal measures.

Above all, we consulted Aung San Suu Kyi and responded to developments with her views high in our minds. And now we have real reason for optimism.

For at long last we now have real hope that Burma's new government might finally deliver its citizens the better future they deserve.

First, after years of political isolation Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) are re-entering politics. The NLD will contest the 48 upcoming by-elections and it was a moving moment when Aung San Suu Kyi herself confirmed that she too will stand. We welcome this, and repeat our call for these elections to be free and fair.

Second, more than 300 political prisoners have now been released, including dissidents from the 1988 generation student movement, the 2007 'Saffron Revolution', ethnic leaders and journalists.

The international community has called for this many years, and on our visits to Burma we told the Burmese authorities that it was a key test of their sincerity.

Third, Burma's authorities are taking steps to make peace with armed ethnic groups. On 12 January, the government announced a ceasefire with the Karen National Union, halting hostilities in one of the world's longest running civil conflicts.

Nobody expects a quick fix to long-standing ethnic grievances, but negotiating meaningful ceasefire agreements is an essential first step.

We call on the Burmese government to continue efforts to resolve ethnic conflicts peacefully, including in Kachin State, where fighting regrettably continues.

We also call on the Burmese government to permit full humanitarian access and to address remaining concerns about human rights.

Fourth, the Burmese government is making a start on economic reform.

An IMF team visited Burma in October and another, including senior World Bank economists, is in Burma this week.

Burma faces the huge task of reforming its whole economy. It will need to reform taxation, dismantle monopolies, reform the banking system and re-build its once-famous agricultural sector. Sound technical advice could play an important role in assisting with these considerable economic policy challenges.

Taken together, these four reforms are substantive. They give us hope that reformists within Burma's government now have the upper hand.

But Burma's reform process is just beginning. The move towards democracy warms our hearts but we must keep our heads cool at the same time.

Decades of isolation have left Burma's new government with very limited capacity to implement reform, even where political will is there. That is why it is so important that the international community reinforces the momentum for reform.

Here, as in many other areas, Australian and British foreign policies are in lock-step.

Earlier this month, Australia decided to revise its sanctions on Burma; this week, Britain and the European Union as a whole suspended travel bans for the President and key ministers. We will encourage the European Union to take further steps to ease sanctions in response to changes on the ground.

As the two largest donors to the Burmese people, Australia and the United Kingdom have made it clear we are serious about supporting reform efforts. We call on other donors to both work together and think creatively about what more they could do to assist Burma. Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Yet it receives less aid per capita than any of the other 50 poorest countries in the world. Last year, for example, Burma received around US$8 aid per capita, compared with Laos and Cambodia which received US$68 and US $49 respectively. Without substantial international assistance, Burma is unlikely to be able to implement its ambitious reform agenda.

We will also continue to support Aung San Suu Kyi in her national leadership role. She embodies an unfailing belief in a better future and she carries herself with a grace and fortitude that is inspiring.

Australia and the UK are now examining further steps we can take to support the Burmese people and encourage its government to keep moving forward. There will, no doubt, be twists and turns along the reform path. Some in Burma do not see reform in their interest, and may seek to thwart it.

Real and enduring change is not assured. But the glimmers of hope that have appeared in the cracks of the repression must not be stifled. This is a historic opportunity and we stand ready to help every step of the way.

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