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Wanted: softly spoken defence attaché for Myanmar

Myanmar President Thein Sein meets Australia's Governor-General Quentin Bryce. Photo by Auspic/Department of Finance.
19 March 2013
Myanmar President Thein Sein meets Australia's Governor-General Quentin Bryce. Photo by Auspic/Department of Finance.

By Belinda Cranston

Australia’s pledge to post a full-time military attaché in Myanmar has been hailed by an ANU international relations expert as a positive step towards respectful law and order in the former military junta.

After withdrawing its resident defence attaché to Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 1979, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced on Monday the government would lift some of its restrictions on defence engagement, in recognition of the country’s progress towards democracy.

That included posting a permanent, full-time defence attaché in Myanmar – a role that had in the interim been filled by visiting attaches based in Bangkok.

The announcement coincided with the country’s president, former military ruler turned democracy advocate Thein Sein, landing in Australia on Sunday – the first visit to Australia by a Burmese president in nearly 40 years.

Dr John Blaxland, based in the ANU College of the Asia and the Pacific and who served as Australia’s defence attaché to Thailand and Myanmar from 2008-2010, hailed the decision a positive move, given Myanmar’s transition “from military rule to a quasi-civilian and an increasingly civilian rule” over the past two years.

That said, he conceded he was initially against Australia further engaging with Myanmar’s military.

“There’s been plenty to criticise about the way the Myanmar military has operated,” he said. “But if we want them to reform, we need to actually show them, what we would like them to do.”

It was an armed force that had for decades, been isolated from the rest of the world, he added.

“So if we want change to come about, if we want (Myanmar) to not unwind the reforms that have taken place so far, we actually need to speak to people.

“We need to engage with them and talk to them about the way we think they should do business.”

He recommended the new defence attaché take a softly spoken, self-deprecating approach, rather than a “haughty” or “arrogant” Western manner.

“That is going to completely get the heckles up, and get resistance – what we need is a respectful, mild mannered approach to the issues, that recognises the complexity of the problems, and seeks to in a very meek and constructive manner, offer solutions and assistance.”

As well as a full-time, permanent defence attaché being based in Myanmar, Ms Gillard announced on Monday the country would receive an additional $20 million in aid from Australia over the next two years.

Blaxland did not believe it was too little, fearing large amounts of aid were often misspent.

“A measured, incremental increase is a constructive way of engaging people locally; you employ them locally, you develop programs incrementally,” he said.

“And then you can build something that is constructive, that can have long term effects, rather than just squandering on programs, simply to spend the money quickly. That’s not the way to do business.”

Former diplomat turned ANU Visiting Fellow Trevor Wilson believed Thein Sein’s visit was timely, despite some pro-democracy campaigners believing the pace of change in Myanmar was too slow.

The visit had originally been scheduled for November last year.

“I think on the whole, if he had not come (now), it would have started to look like he was ignoring us,” he said.

Thein Sein will remain in Australia until Wednesday.

Watch an interview with Dr Blaxland on why Australian needs a softly spoken approach rather than military muscle when engaging Myanmar at ANU channel on YouTube.


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team