Baby steps as Myanmar seeks help on ethnic integration and expats

AUSTRALIA and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding yesterday that will make a serious contribution to Myanmar controlling its borders and, just as important, working to create a situation in which it can welcome back people from its sizeable international diaspora who would like to return home.

But first, just a smidgin of context. In the lead-up to the G20 summit in Brisbane, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told the Ethnic Business Awards that Australia was now clearly the most successful immigrant society in the world. He did this with a polite deference to a former US cabinet secretary who was sitting in the audience. But Morrison was very explicit — Australia is a more successful immigrant society than the US, and vastly more so than any of the European nations whose ­bureaucrats and non-government organisations sometimes fatuously criticise our border protection policies.

First, we are one of the most heavily immigrant societies in the world. About a decade ago we passed a point at which more than half of Australians were born overseas or had one of their parents born overseas. And of course the immigrant source countries represent virtually every corner of the globe.

Second, Morrison cited public opinion polling that shows an overwhelming majority of Australians support our immigration policies, whereas most Americans don’t like their immigration program and European populations are even more hostile to their governments’ immigration policies.

The key, Morrison argues — and the proposition is surely incontestable — is that immigrants overwhelmingly come here legally in a process that is widely seen to be fair and is controlled by the Australian government. The ­absence of illegal immigration is essential to maintain public support for legal immigration.

Stopping the flow of illegal immigrants on boats from the north of Australia is the Abbott government’s greatest achievement so far. However, Morrison is also leading efforts to involve Australia in genuine regional solutions to regional refugee and illegal people-movement issues.

The regional solution sometimes talked about by Labor when it was in office, and beloved of NGOs, would be a disaster. It is based on the model of a big resettlement program to Australia of people processed in the ­region. But this is not a regional ­solution at all. Instead, it would act as a magnet drawing people into the region for the purpose of achieving immigration to Aus­tralia. Far from solving a regional problem, it would create a regional problem. But there are some genuine regional refugee and illegal people-movement problems within Southeast Asia. Many of them arise from or involve Myanmar.

Yesterday I attended a lunch at a Sydney Chinatown restaurant with Morrison and the remarkable U Khin Yi, the Minister for Immigration and Population in the Myanmar government. The MOU the two signed is all about Australia providing sophisticated, sustained assistance to Myanmar to manage its borders, and follows similar assistance we have provided to Cambodia and Indonesia.

This is aimed at people-­smuggling and other types of organised crime, such as narcotics and weapons smuggling and is directly in Australia’s interests. Says Morrison: “Australia will have stronger domestic borders if we have stronger regional borders.”

Under a similar agreement, Canberra helped Cambodia activate a computerised central alert list for people who shouldn’t travel, or are criminals or need attention one way or the other. Previously, the Cambodians had such a list but it was on paper and was infinitely less effective.

“Myanmar is emerging economically,” Morrison says, “and the crooks will use the same planes and ships as the business people and tourists do.

“The gold standard in the region is Singapore. Very little gets through Singapore. It’s mainly crime we’re concerned with in Myanmar, which has emerged as something of a hot spot for methamphetamines and other drugs.”

This agreement is about helping Myanmar carry out its own policies and is made in a spirit of respect for the Myanmar ­government.

But there is also a big problem of Myanmar’s refugees, exiles and ethnic minorities who live in their hundreds of thousands in a few Southeast Asian countries, especially Thailand and Malaysia.

“There are two reasons people leave Myanmar,” Yi tells me. “Because of internal conflict and in order to get jobs. We’ve been working hard on the peace process with the ethnic minorities and we’ve been able to sign agreements with 14 of the 16 ethnic groups. The remaining two will follow soon.”

Yi is upbeat about his government’s efforts. But the economic boom engulfing Myanmar, combined with its imperfect but substantial democratisation process and the ceasefires with ethnic minorities, make the combination as favourable as anything Myanmar has seen in many decades.

“We’ve been taking a lot of reform efforts to get people to feel they don’t need to leave, but also to get the diaspora to feel they have the opportunity to return to Myanmar,” Yi says.

These reform efforts have taken two main forms, Yi says. First, most of the three million people from Myanmar who live in Thailand and the 200,000 or so in Malaysia are there illegally and without documents. This means, Yi says, they are open to brutal exploitation by people-smugglers and organised criminals.

The Myanmar government is negotiating with Thailand and Malaysia to allow the Myanmar embassies in those countries to issue passports to the Myanmar citizens there.

The host governments would then give these people work permits and they could work legally. If this could be brought off, it would be a huge, humane reform. But it is a big and complicated task.

Second, the Myanmar government is also introducing a system of permanent residence visas for former Myanmar citizens who have managed to acquire an overseas passport.

This means they can come home to work and live, to participate in the new Myanmar boom, if they wish, while still having the security of a foreign passport, a foreign bolt hole.

The most sensitive issue for the Myanmar government is the ­Rohingya population in Rakhine state. Yi objects even to the use of the term Rohingya. However, he has pioneered a pilot program for non-citizens in Rakhine state to apply for Myanmar citizenship. About 7000 have so far got citizenship under this program.

The Myanmar government is also undertaking a series of un­dramatic but key immigration reforms. Although still far from the easiest place to get a visa for, it has instituted visas on arrival for business travellers, and e-visas for tourists. The e-visas were introduced in September and have already been used by 70,000 people.

This is the most undramatic stuff you could ever report in a newspaper. It would not make headlines anywhere.

But it is the actual sinew and muscle of the process of Myanmar opening to the world and ­embarking on serious economic ­modernisation.

And only by doing that can Myanmar experience the social changes that will integrate the ­different ethnic groups and grow the economic pie sufficiently that internal compromises can be worked out peacefully.

Yi is an important figure in the Myanmar government. He was for a long time in the army and fought against the Karen rebels. In one battle, he received 17 bullet wounds and spent 4½ months in hospital, much of it touch and go whether he would live. The man who rose to be the Karen military commander was the man leading the fight against him in that battle.

Now Yi has responsibility for working with the Karen and he and his old foe, he says, are like brothers, meeting frequently and talking at least every week.

All of this is much better news than Myanmar has had in a long time. Australia is playing a small but useful role in resolving a genuine Southeast Asian problem.

It’s what you might call a regional solution.


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