Good morning, mingalaba! That is the extent of my language skills!

I am very, very pleased to be here today to open the third High Level Consultations on Australia and Myanmar’s partnership.

Permanent Secretary, thank you so much for your kind address, and welcome to you and to all your delegation here this morning.

Can I also acknowledge Australia’s Ambassador to Myanmar Nicholas Coppel and First Assistant Secretary Philip Green, who heads of the [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s] South East Asia Mainland and Regional Division who will be co-chairing this morning’s consultations with you, Permanent Secretary.

We greatly value our Memorandum of Understanding on Development Cooperation, and are proud of what we have achieved together since its establishment in 2013.

Permanent Secretary, your opening address really did give us a very good basis for what I am sure is going to be a very cooperative and very, very good discussion this morning.

The fact that Australia was the first Western country to enter into an arrangement of this type with Myanmar speaks, I think, to the strength of our relationship.

Today is a key opportunity to build on this by reviewing progress on our development cooperation pillars, which include – as you outlined – education, peacebuilding, economic growth, and – something that is also dear to us – gender equality.

But before I go into these, I would like to emphasise the value that Australia places on people-to-people links, and the economic benefits that that can bring.

These links contribute not only to shaping just our nation, but our relationships around the world as well. 

This makes sense when you consider that between 30,000 and 35,000 people who were born in Myanmar have made their homes in Australia.

We are talking a substantial number, as the former Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, I have actually had direct links with your communities in Australia, and I have observed how well that they have integrated into Australian society and made a wonderful contribution to Australia.

A good number of these have come to Australia in the last five years, and many, many of your different ethnic groups are now represented in Australia, and are adding to the rich tapestry of our multicultural society.

Business and community links between our two countries are also strong, and we know there is an Australia Myanmar Chamber of Commerce, Asialink, and the Australia-Myanmar Institute.

Tourism is also increasing with about 17,000 Australians visiting Myanmar, and having had the opportunity yesterday to go out into the countryside, I can see why more and more Australians would want to visit your beautiful country.

But we also have Australian volunteers who give their time and expertise in Myanmar – we have 34 currently in the country and four on the Thai border.

These volunteers are helping to train nurses, to assist reform in the justice sector, they support local non-government organisations, and they share their expertise with Myanmar’s universities.

In this era of openness, our tertiary institutions are making new connections and deepening our countries’ understanding of one another.

Some are cooperating under the New Colombo Plan, supporting Australian students to study here.

Just last month, the Australian National University, which is the university where I attended, hosted the Myanmar Update in Canberra.

And, the day before yesterday, I was really pleased to open the inaugural Australian-Myanmar Strategic Dialogue that was co-convened by the Australian National University and the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

I see our work together on education as vitally important, not just to our future cooperation, but especially to the future of Myanmar.

The education we provide today prepares those who will exercise leadership throughout your society tomorrow.

Education is the first pillar of Australia’s development partnership with Myanmar.

As Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, emphasised last year, ‘education is the key not only to gaining good jobs and creating economic growth, but also to understanding social and political challenges, and building peace and stability’.

And can I add that stability, not just in our respective countries, but in our region.

That is why education is the flagship of our aid assistance in Myanmar.

Our investments are focused on improving the quality of education, with a strong focus on strengthening government systems to deliver more effective and efficient services.   

Strengthening Ministry of Education systems ensures the Government of Myanmar can continue to deliver the programs without donor support in future years, and can I commend the Ministry of Education for this.

Australia was the first bilateral donor – in partnership with the World Bank – to support the Ministry of Education to strengthen the quality and delivery of its own program, the Decentralising Funding to Schools Project. 

We are pleased to see that the Ministry of Education has exceeded expectations and demonstrated a great ability to deliver complex programs at scale and on time.

Together, we have delivered school grants to more than 47,000 schools in Myanmar and separately provided financial stipends to help over 158,000 children stay at school.

And I think that that is a great achievement.

Building on the success of this partnership, Australia will significantly invest in the implementation of the Government’s recently launched National Education Strategic Plan.

This will include substantial future investments in teacher mentoring, early grade learning assessments and quality assurance, and improvement systems.

We have a funding partnership with Woodside, a major Australian mining company with investments here in Myanmar, to support early childhood education through the Myanmar Education Consortium.

Australia also continues to invest in Myanmar’s future leaders through the provision of Australia Award Scholarships.

Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to meet a number of them at a dinner that was hosted by the Ambassador.

Australia will provide 55 Australia Award Scholarships in 2017 to support champions for reform and development, making a total of 231 since 2011.

We also foster linkages between Australian and Myanmar tertiary education providers.

And we promote opportunities for Australians to study and undertake internships in Myanmar under the New Colombo Plan – and can I at this point reiterate our thanks to the government of Myanmar for the support of the New Colombo Plan.

As a result of our efforts, more children will have access to quality education and develop a larger view of how they can help themselves, their communities and, in turn, their nation.

Their schooling will contribute to their ability to then go on and further their education, take advantage of these other opportunities at secondary and tertiary levels, and then go on to make a contribution to Myanmar’s future and to the future of our region.

I am sure that some will add their contribution to peace and prosperity in the wider region, and what we – in Australia, in the neighbourhood – refer to as the Indo-Pacific, so we all benefit in the region from our collective efforts.

Given our long-standing commitment to improving education in Myanmar, I am pleased to announce the Australian Government will provide an additional $71.5 million over four years to further support education in Myanmar.

Of this funding, $51.5 million will support the Myanmar Government’s Decentralising Funding to Schools project, with the remaining $20 million for the new Myanmar Education Quality Improvement program.

Now, the second pillar of Australia’s development partnership with the Government of Myanmar is support for peace building.

In Australia’s experience, the rock on which we sustain a peaceful society has been the general election, of all Australians voting every three years. 

We are great believers in the peaceful transfer of power through ‘the ballot box’ – through our general elections.

So, Australia was very pleased to support Myanmar’s 2015 general elections.

We will again be supporting the upcoming by-elections on 1 April [2017], and working with the Union Election Commission – I look forward to meeting them this afternoon.

And we look forward to further strengthening our partnerships with the Election Commission in the lead-up to the 2020 general elections.

Two recent visits by Australian parliamentary delegations added a valuable dimension to this work.

We recognise that the peace and reconciliation process is Myanmar’s foremost concern, and we appreciate the trust being placed in Australia to work sensitively in this field.

We support peace negotiations, we support political dialogue, and we support activities that build confidence in the peace process.

We support a locally led peace process, where the Myanmar Government works in partnership with ethnic armed organisations to support peace-building institutions.

It is important that these institutions are, and are seen to be, accountable for their actions.

We agree with the Government of Myanmar that peacebuilding is most effective when it includes all parties of the conflict who have a constructive contribution to make. 

Our support helps to bring together all those who have a stake in peace, including affected communities.

It strengthens the hand of women of Myanmar in building peace, and reducing the impact of violence upon women and girls.

Australia has learnt from women in our close neighbourhood about how effective women can be in winning and sustaining peace.

Communities that have suffered from violence can remain fragile for some time.

They can be especially vulnerable in times of natural disaster.

And that is why Australia works with the Government of Myanmar on disaster risk reduction and resilience.

Can I add, as an aside, as Minister for International Development and the Pacific, this is something that I see very much in my role.

And we are doing a lot of work in the Pacific, and we hope that some of the work that we are doing in an area that is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world – as indeed the Indo-Pacific area is – and so we hope that the lessons that are learnt in those areas can also be of benefit in terms of future risk reduction and resilience planning.

Our humanitarian assistance has supported the people of Myanmar to recover from natural disasters, such as Cyclone Komen in 2015, as well as a number of protracted crises that this country has experienced.

We continue to provide humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State in support of all affected communities.

The third pillar of our development partnership in Myanmar is economic growth.

The Australian Government has supported legal and regulatory reform to make it easier for business to create wealth in Myanmar.

Australia believes that the private sector is an important partner in helping societies to build the best education and health systems possible.

We encourage businesses to engage directly in development activities.

Australia invites businesses to suggest ways that they can extend their activities in Myanmar in partnership with Australian development assistance, in ways that will directly improve people’s lives.

Now, one of these business partnerships, with Action AID and Fabric Social, helps women find markets abroad for the textiles that they make.

And as somebody who sews and understands and appreciates beautiful textiles, can I say I very much appreciated receiving a beautiful fabric from Yankin Education College when we visited the other day, so I understand the standard of the work that many of the women produce here in Myanmar is absolutely stunning.

And so I hope that we can find markets abroad for this beautiful work of art.

Another, which the Australian Government and Australian Volunteers International have established with the adventure tourism company, Intrepid, helping people in Myanmar build tourism businesses.

Australia also supports the economic empowerment of women in Myanmar, including through increased access to investment finance.

Gender equality is one of the major themes of our development program, and of our overall foreign policy.

Indeed, the Australian Government has mandated that 80 per cent of our overseas development assistance must have gender equality as a major component and we are on track to meet that target.

Australia is a major funding partner for the Livelihoods and Rural Development Trust, or LIFT, Trust Fund.     

One of LIFT’s significant interventions is the maternal and child cash transfer initiative where mothers are given a monthly stipend to buy nutritious food and access health services over the crucial first 1,000 days of their child’s life.

Through the She Leads’ program we are helping build women’s confidence and skills to lead in their communities or in politics.

All of my work in gender equality has led me to fundamentally believe that when you empower a woman, you empower her family, you in turn empower her community, and you empower her nation.

Ladies and gentlemen, before I finish, I also like to say how good it was, yesterday, on this theme, as I visited Maubin Provence and we looked at a program there of combining fish and rice farming together, that the greater number of the farmers were women.

So that was very, very good to see, that out in the rural areas women’s empowerment is certainly very much at the fore.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to finish with a few words about Australia’s position on human rights and our ongoing efforts to protect those rights internationally.

Australia is standing for the first time for election to the Human Rights Council for the term 2018 to 2020. 

No country from the Pacific region has ever been represented on the Council before.

We see a seat on the Council as a significant responsibility and acknowledgement of our commitment to the protection of human rights globally.

Australia would bring a practical and pragmatic approach if we are elected, but more importantly we will bring a perspective and an understanding of the realities and the complexities of issues in our Indo-Pacific area.

Our candidacy is based on five elements: advancing the rights of women and girls; strengthening governance and democratic institutions; promoting freedom of expression; advancing the rights of indigenous people; and strengthening human rights institutions.

Just as importantly, we look to provide, as I said, pragmatic and practical assistance through respectful and intelligent partnerships – locals understand local challenges better than outsiders can.

It is this contribution of straight talking and respectful, practical partnership that we want to bring to the Human Rights Council.

Can I also say how much we value Myanmar’s support for Australia’s election to the Council.

In conclusion, I am certain these High Level Consultations on our development partnership will help us to work more constructively together.

Today is an important day to share new ideas, to speak honestly about how we can achieve these shared goals and how we can work together in the future.

Thank you so much, for your kind attention.

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