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Australia eases defence curbs as Thein Sein visits

Prime Minister Julia Gillard (left) and the President of Myanmar Thein Sein speak to the press at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday. Photo: AFP


Australia boosted aid and eased restrictions on defence cooperation with Burma as Thein Sein became the Southeast Asian country’s first head of state to visit Canberra since 1974.

As the once pariah country approaches the second anniversary of a quasi-civilian rule, Canberra said it was increasing its support to recognise reforms.

“As a close neighbour, Australia will benefit from a more open and prosperous Myanmar (Burma) that is fully integrated into the region,” said Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

“Australia’s commitment to expand its constructive engagement with Myanmar recognises the unprecedented process of change under way there towards political freedom and the new opportunity this brings to help promote the prosperity of Myanmar and its people.

“It also recognises President Thein Sein’s leadership in driving these critical reforms.”

While Canberra said its arms embargo would remain, it announced an easing of restrictions on defence cooperation including humanitarian and disaster relief activities, as well as peacekeeping.

It will also appoint a defence attache to Burma as well as a trade commissioner.

Gillard said US$20.7 million would be provided over two years for “strengthening democratic institutions, promoting human rights, improving economic governance and advancing the rule of law”.

Thein Sein said he was proud to be the first head of state to visit since 1974.

“My visit to Australia is one that I have looked forward to for a very long time,” he said.

“This is because I know that Australia and Myanmar are destined to be good partners and more importantly the people of Myanmar and Australia are destined to be good friends.

“I hope that you appreciate that what we are undertaking has no equal in modern times. This is not just a simple transition… but a transition from military rule to democratic rule,” he added.

Burma has surprised observers with a series of reforms following the end of nearly half a century of military rule in 2011, leading western nations to start rolling back sanctions.

Australia last year lifted all its remaining targeted travel and financial sanctions against the country.