The last time World Vision Australia CEO Tim Costello visited Myanmar was in 2008, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.
Back then he witnessed utter desperation and experienced extreme frustration in trying to get help to those who were suffering. He visited Myanmar again in January 2012 with Jetstar Group CEO Bruce Buchanan and says the picture now couldn’t be more different as the country undergoes a remarkable transformation.
In 2008, Tim said to even whisper the name of democracy leader Aung San Sun Kyi in private conversation would drive home fear of political repercussions.
Now her picture is being sold on the streets and plastered on billboards. Eighteen months after her release from house arrest, she’s preparing to contest a by-election for a seat in her nation’s Parliament.
Below is an edited version of an article that Tim wrote for The Canberra Times in which he reflects on the promising signs he witnessed in a nation on the verge of democracy:
“On the day I arrived in Myanmar, 600 prisoners were released. It was one of many positive signs that we heard about; signs that just a year ago would have seemed miraculous.
To his credit, Kevin Rudd recognised the early signs coming out of Myanmar. He visited the country in July last year and at the time called for greater freedom. Last month the Australian Government moved to ease sanctions. The US on the other hand, is still holding out.
There is concern that a softening of policy might erode incentives for the Myanmar Government to continue down this road of change.
The truth is international sanctions haven't proved to be as effective as many had hoped, while diplomatic engagement over the past few months has resulted in increased momentum.
I believe the engagement of companies, such as Australia's Jetstar, have also played a crucial role in leading to a new hope that is emerging in Myanmar. Jetstar was subject to a union campaign a few years ago which argued by flying into Myanmar, the company was assisting the country's military junta.
Ultimately it is the people of Myanmar, not merely the government, that global relations will impact on. And they are a people crying out for help.
Decades of international isolation have left its economy and infrastructure underdeveloped. Ethnic conflict has pushed hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes, and aid groups now estimate around 3 million people from Myanmar are living as refugees in other countries.
It is our responsibility to respond to that need. The Myanmar Government is increasingly displaying a willingness to work with humanitarian agencies, and for that reason, the time is right for a renewed focus on the region.
There is a real chance to kick-start development in Myanmar, with the continued support and cooperation of the government and also the engagement of Australian business.”