Flag of Burma

Burma country brief

Overview

Burma is the largest country in mainland South-East Asia by area.  Situated in a region of strong economic growth, and bordering China, India, and Thailand, Burma’s geostrategic location is favourable.  It has a diverse population of around 51 million.  Burma’s Government recognises 135 separate ethnic groups. Major groups include Burman/Bamar, Shan, Karen/Kayin, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Mon and Karenni/Kayah.

Despite its size and strategic location, Burma is also the poorest country in the region, with around one quarter of its population estimated to be living in poverty.

Burma is a country in transition.  For much of its contemporary history, Burma was ruled by a military dictatorship, resulting in decades of relative international isolation.  Since the installation of a civilian government in 2011, the Burmese Government has introduced a broad array of political, economic and social reforms. 

Significant steps taken towards political reform have included the release of over 1,100 political prisoners and the introduction of laws to relax media censorship, provide for greater political participation, labour rights and freedom of expression. 

The Burmese Government has also introduced a broad array of reforms which have begun to open and rejuvenate the economy, including an improved new Foreign Investment Law, improved monetary policies, increased tax collection and import tariff reductions. 

Political overview

Burma is a country in transition.  From 1962 to 2011, Burma was ruled by successive military regimes.  The first general election in 20 years was held in 2010, and a civilian government was installed in 2011, altering significantly Burma’s political landscape. 

Burma is governed as a presidential republic with a bicameral legislature called the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which consists of the 440-seat People’s Assembly, or lower house, and the 224-seat Nationalities Assembly, or upper house.

The constitution of Burma, its third since independence, was drafted by its military rulers and published in September 2008, entrenching the primacy of the military in Burmese politics.  A quarter of the seats in both houses are reserved for the military and filled through appointment by the commander in chief.

The legislature elects the president, though the military members have the right to nominate one of the three candidates, with the other two nominated by the elected members of each chamber. The current head of state, inaugurated as President on 30 March 2011, is Thein Sein.

Burma’s two most prominent political parties are the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.  NLD won Burma’s 1990 elections, but was never permitted to form government.  After choosing to boycott the 2010 elections, NLD re-registered as a party on 13 December 2011, and contested the April 2012 by-elections.  It won 43 of the 44 seats it contested.

Burma’s next national elections are expected to be held in late 2015.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Burma established diplomatic relations in 1952, four years after Burma became an independent republic.  While Australia’s relations with Burma were limited between 1990 and 2011, Australia maintained an Embassy in Rangoon, from which it consistently delivered development assistance and expressed concerns over Burma’s human rights record.  Australia has substantially increased its bilateral engagement since the installation of the civilian government in 2011.

Australia’s development assistance to Burma continues to be a cornerstone of the bilateral relationship.  Our assistance totalled $81.4 million in 2013-14 and is estimated to reach $90 million in 2014-15. 

Australia is also facilitating increased trade and investment links with Burma.  Although trade and investment between our two countries has historically been low, Australian business interest is growing in response to the broad array of reforms which have begun to open and rejuvenate the economy.  Burma is an emerging market with significant potential.  A number of Australian businesses are increasing their presence, including in the energy and resources, infrastructure, finance and banking sector.  ANZ, Woodside and Bluescope Steel established a commercial presence in Rangoon in 2013.  Australia opened an Austrade office in Rangoon in June 2013. 

Australia is also enhancing modestly our defence engagement, including posting a resident Defence Attaché to Burma on 20 January 2014.  Our defence engagement focusses on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in multilateral settings (including ASEAN).  We will also engage bilaterally on peacekeeping issues.  Our defence engagement does not include any combat-related training exercises with the Burmese military (Tatmadaw), and is designed to help reinforce the role of a professional defence force and the importance of adhering to international norms. 

Sanctions

On 3 July 2012 Australia lifted autonomous travel and financial sanctions in relation to Burma.  However, Australia continues to maintain an arms embargo in relation to Burma.

Australians involved in or considering doing business in Burma should familiarise themselves with the scope of the arms embargo under the Autonomous Sanctions Regulations 2011 which prohibits” the supply, sale or transfer of arms and related materiel and the provision of related services to Burma, including the military and military-affiliated companies”. Individuals and companies doing business with, or in, Burma should be aware that individuals and companies with close ties to the military continue to exercise influence across many sectors of the economy, including – but not limited to – the oil, gas and timber sectors. Individuals and companies doing business with, or in, Burma should conduct appropriate due diligence, exercise all reasonable precautions about who they are doing business with and, where necessary, obtain independent legal advice.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs may grant a sanctions permit authorising an activity that would otherwise contravene these prohibitions if the Minister is satisfied that it would be in the national interest to do so.

If you assess that your activity satisfies this condition, you may apply for a sanctions permit using the Online Sanctions Administration System (OSAS).

Regional assistance and law enforcement cooperation

Australia works with key regional organisations, such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to create a strong and prosperous East Asia region, including Burma. We promote economic integration through the free flow of goods and services across borders. We also respond to regional challenges, including emerging infectious diseases, human trafficking, water resources management and disaster management.

The Australian Federal Police has a program of cooperation with the Myanmar Police Force focused on counter-narcotics, as well as countering child-sex tourism and trafficking in persons. Burma is the second biggest source of heroin globally and is a significant producer of amphetamine-type stimulants.

People to people links

Many people to people links have developed through the Burmese community in Australia.  Australians with Burmese backgrounds are estimated to number 30,000.  More than half arrived in the past 10 years and the majority arrived under the Humanitarian Program.  Others, such as the Anglo-Burmese community, have been in Australia for decades.  There are also a number of students, professionals and others within the community, which is diverse and encompasses people from a broad range of ethnic and social backgrounds.

A growing number of Australian tourists are visiting Burma, a trend that is likely to continue.  Likewise, the number of Burmese tourists visiting Australia has grown by 70 per cent in 2013, albeit from a low base.

Australian NGOs and academic institutions, some of which have been working in Burma for years, are also important contributors to strengthen people to people links between Burma and Australia.

The number of Australian Awards Scholarships (long-term) and Fellowships (short-term) for Burmese students is growing.  The prestigious Australia Awards offer the next generation of Burma’s leaders the opportunity to undertake study, research or professional development in Australia to contribute to the development of their country upon return and foster strong relationships with professionals in their field. 

Fifty long-terms Australia Award scholarships will be offered to Burmese candidates in 2015, in addition to the 40 scholarships awarded to Burmese students in 2014.  In 2013, Australia supported 34 Australia award scholars and 95 short-term study opportunities. 

For more information: http://www.australiaawards.gov.au/Pages/default.aspx

Under the Australian Government student mobility program, 14 students were offered funding in 2014 to study in Burma, with a further 46 Australian students taking part in projects with some study in Burma.

Australia is also improving links between our tertiary sectors through the New Colombo Plan, which offers Australian undergraduate students the opportunity to undertake study and work placements in Burma from 2015.

The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program promotes economic growth and poverty reduction in the Indo-Pacific region by assisting host organisations to deliver effective and sustainable development outcomes. AVID has a one-stop entry point to Australian volunteering.

For more information see the AVID website.

Development assistance

Australia has steadily increased aid to Burma since reforms began in 2011.  Our development assistance is estimated to reach $90 million in 2014-15, up from $48.8 million in 2011-12.  It is focused on education, health, livelihoods and rural development, peace building and governance. 

With an estimated one-quarter of its population living in poverty, Burma is considered the poorest country in ASEAN, ranking 149th out of 186 states in the UN Human Development Index.  Burma receives proportionally less international aid than the world’s other 50 poorest countries, at just $US10 per person in 2012.

For more information on our Development Assistance program: http://aid.dfat.gov.au/countries/eastasia/burma/Pages/home.aspx

Direct Aid Program

The Direct Aid Program (DAP) is a flexible, small grant scheme for development activities managed by Heads of Australian Missions in approximately 45 countries, including Burma.  The emphasis of the program is on alleviating basic humanitarian hardships.

Human Rights

Australia continues to urge Burma’s Government to improve the human rights situation.  We do this bilaterally and in international fora.  Australia strongly supports the work of the UN Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who made her first official visit to Burma in July 2014. Australia is also supporting the development of the country's human rights capacity and promoting its regional cooperation with other human rights institutions.

The Burmese Government has made some notable progress on improving its human rights record.  The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, welcomed President Thein Sein's pardon of political prisoners and activists awaiting trial and their subsequent release in January 2014.  In total, more than 1100 political prisoners have been released since 2011.  Australia has long advocated for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Burma and we continue to do this.   Australia welcomes ongoing dialogue between the Burmese Government and interested parties to clarify cases where the status of prisoners is unclear.

The Government has also passed laws providing greater freedom of association, expression and participation.  Privately owned daily newspapers have been permitted since April 2013 and media freedom has improved.  New labour laws passed in September 2011 aim to bring the country back into line with international norms and International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards.  In June 2012, the Government and armed forces signed a Joint Action Plan with the United Nations to stop the abuse of children in armed conflict, including recruitment of child soldiers.  272 child soldiers have been released to date.  The ILO removed its restricted mandate on Burma in June 2013.

Progress has been made towards resolving longstanding ethnic conflicts. The Government has signed preliminary agreements with all main ethnic armed groups and a nationwide ceasefire agreement is progressing, with draft text now being negotiated.  Australia encourages all sides to work together towards sustainable peace and has committed $12 million (2012-16) to support the peace process.

Significant human rights challenges remain. Australia has consistently stressed to Burma's leaders the importance of resolving the situation in Rakhine State as well as the need to protect the rights of all people living in the country and to address underlying causes.  Australia is one of the largest bilateral contributors in foreign aid to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, providing more than $10 million in humanitarian assistance since 2012. 

Economic overview

Bordering China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos – 40 per cent of the world’s population – and with an extensive eastern seaboard, Burma’s geostrategic location and prospects for regional connectivity and trade are compelling.

Rising exports, consumption and investment have fuelled growth of over eight per cent in 2014-15, and Burma is expected to embark on an extended period of rapid economic growth.  An abundant supply of natural resources, including oil, gas, hydropower and gems has the potential to bolster economic development.

While Burma has significant potential as an emerging market, modernising Burma’s economy will inevitably be a complex and long-term process.

Australia is helping to improve investment conditions and governance in Burma through our aid program.  Through the Myanmar-Australia Partnership for Reform ($20 million, 2013-2015), Australia is promoting democratic and economic governance, including public financial management reform (with the World Bank), and a legal and regulatory reform program with the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, to promote private sector growth.

A number of Australian businesses are already increasing their presence in Burma, and Austrade opened an office in Rangoon in June 2013 to build business networks, identify market trends and opportunities, and support market entry by Australian firms. 

Information on doing business and opportunities in Burma

High level visits

August 2014: Minister for Trade and Investment, the Hon Andrew Robb MP, visited Burma.

July and August 2014: Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, visited Burma for bilateral and ASEAN-related meetings respectively.

February 2014: Minister for Finance, U Win Shein visited Australia for G20 meetings.

February 2014: Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the Hon Scott Morrison visited Burma.

November 2013: Then Governor-General of Australia, HE Ms Quentin Bryce, visited Burma.

July 2013: Then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Bob Carr visited Burma

May 2013: Minister for Finance, U Win Shein accompanied by Minister for Mines, U Myint Aung visited as part of a mining delegation and attended the Mining for Development and Global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative conferences.

April 2013: Then President of the Senate, the Hon John Hogg visited Burma.

March 2013: President U Thein Sein, visited Australia at the invitation of the Governor-General. It was the first visit to Australia by a Head of State of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar since 1974.

October 2012: Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin visited Australia, the first visit by a Foreign Minister to Australia since 1984.  

October 2012: Then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations,, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, visited Burma accompanied by a 12 member business delegation.

September and October 2012: The Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, Thura U Shwe Mann, and the Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament, U Khin Aung Myint, led parliamentary delegations to Australia, as guests of the Australian Parliament.

June 2012:  Then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Bob Carr visited Burma

June 2011: Then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Kevin Rudd visited Burma, the first Australian minister to visit since the Hon Alexander Downer in 2002.