The inaugural conference of the Australia-Myanmar Institute (AMI) was held in Melbourne on 18-19 March 2013, at Melbourne Town Hall.
Planning for the new Institute started early in 2012, involving academics from The University of Melbourne and Deakin University, and several other people with an interest in Myanmar. At different times in the organisational phase a large number of other academics, business persons, personalities from non-governmental organisations and professional associations took part in discussions. The group became the Institute’s formation committee, and extended its reach reached to members of the Myanmar community in Australia and their supporters. The committee also built contacts with counterparts in Myanmar and among concerned communities in other countries, principally in Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States and the United Nations system.
These discussions culminated in the inaugural conference at Melbourne Town Hall in March 2013, where well over 200 participants from Australia, Myanmar and other countries held plenary sessions and split into six working groups around priority pillar areas.
During discussions over the past year, the formation committee was inspired by the reform processes under way in Myanmar. It took note of the rapid rise in interest in Myanmar within Australia and elsewhere, both as a country moving to realise its place in the world and as resource-rich land endowed with strong human resources.
The outcome was a decision to work towards an Institute which would be in a position to work collaboratively with counterparts in Myanmar to assist the identification of Myanmar’s needs during this period of reform, and to assist Australian educational and private sector groupings to develop new research, capacity strengthening and business proposals.
The formation committee recognised that a great deal of work connected to Myanmar is being undertaken at universities and other institutions in Australia, and that there is significant interest by the government, non-government and private sectors in building new relationships into Myanmar.
The committee noted that Australian interest in Myanmar is not new, with connections between the countries dating back to the second half of the 19th century, when the shared colonial heritage gave birth to many lasting relationships.
These relationships are part of the reason why there is a large and varied Burmese diaspora in Australia. Another part of that base is the place of Australia as a favoured destination for Burmese students, with large numbers having studied in the two countries under the Colombo Plan and other programs since.
No central registry has collected information on the scale or type of connection extant now in either country. A reason for convening the inaugural conference for AMI as a formation event rather than simply launching an institute as an adjunct to government programs was that it was clearly important to bring together, for the first time, as many disparate connection elements as possible, and from that beginning to determine where the most pressing research, capacity strengthening and business relationship priorities might be found, and how they might most usefully be supported by the Institute.
The formation committee also noted that there are a number of other conferences or committees in Australia working either directly or indirectly on Myanmar. These include the Myanmar/Burma Update conference hosted by the Australian National University, the Association of Graduates of the Institute of Medicine in Rangoon (which has a lively membership in Australia), the Australia-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce, the “Conversation” established by Asialink, the Burma Education Network and many more.
The formation committee decided that the initial conference should seek to attract attendance from all these groups, and from the wider public interested in building a new and wide base for the strengthening of the bilateral relationship around research and capacity priorities.
Ultimately, nearly 400 people from around Australia and beyond were contacted directly, with well over 200 in attendance at the conference and many others asking to be kept in touch through reporting, mailing lists and the website.
The conference was structured as an outcomes event. It was not the intention of the committee to hold a series of presentations, but an event which would enable priority areas to be discussed in workshops, with reports of a broad character being presented to a plenary at the end and the creation of working groups to refine the conclusions and create networks which would stimulate further thinking about the best ways of conducting research or pursuing initiatives relevant to the business community, NGOs and others.
These workshops were held within the framework of six “priority pillars” identified by the formation committee during the pre-conference consultations. Each pillar will have its own reporting page, but in brief they are:
- Governance and Law. This priority is to support work on the development of parliamentary and policy development processes, the rule of law, law enforcement, human rights and related actions. This pillar also encompasses such issues as transparency, the accountability, legislative drafting, treaty-making and compliance regimes and the like.
- Economy and Business. Myanmar is seeking to redevelop a vibrant economy drawing strength from the country’s natural and human resources. This priority pillar group seeks to support this in a way which protects the interests of the Myanmar people and the environment, and enhances the ability of Myanmar citizens to control their own destiny.
- Health. It was clear from early in the consultations leading to the conference that public health access and delivery in Myanmar is in need of a great deal of assistance, both in material and educational terms. It was also clear that health statistics in Myanmar are in a state which needs urgent attention.
- Education. Educational outcomes in Myanmar are equally as poor, and the education system can be assisted by the development of new relationships between Australian and Myanmar institutions, at tertiary, vocational, secondary and primary levels. This applies not only to institutions in Myanmar run by the State, but importantly also to institutions operated privately and monastic education (which reaches the largest number of young people).
- Heritage (cultural and environmental). Myanmar is a tourist paradise, but in a sad state of disrepair. This disrepair is evident to the eye of the tourist, but in its most serious manifestations through consideration of the situation of public buildings, monuments, pagodas and the country’s architectural heritage. Environmental considerations have not had a high priority in the past in Myanmar’s national development, and the formation committee found that experts in Myanmar wish to see this situation rectified, fast.
- Gender, Equity and Reconciliation. Women have had a strong and prominent place in national management in Burma’s history, a position which eroded during the colonial period and 50 years of military-led government. The committee believed, and the conference discussions confirmed, that development as envisaged in the other five pillars will be retarded unless women are empowered to return to the place they have traditionally occupied in Myanmar decision-making, and further empowered by the adoption of measures similar to those envisaged by the international community.
The conference was led to this discussion of special priority issues by an address delivered by the Australian Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr and by a message delivered on behalf of the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar in Canberra. Both welcomed the concept of the Australia-Myanmar Institute and its gathering of a wide range of academic and business interest to support its future work.
Opening statements were made by the Vice Chancellor of Deakin University and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) of the University of Melbourne. Both emphasised their support for the conference and its ambition. Similarly, addresses by the Chancellors of the Australian National University and the Southern Cross University illustrated the broad support for the concept of an Institute.
The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, representing Melbourne City Council as the host of the occasion in Melbourne Town Hall, spoke of the importance Melbourne attaches to the event, and of the significance of AMI as a potential vehicle for enhancing local government institutions in Myanmar.
The next steps, following this highly successful conference, will include arranging a gathering in Yangon in early May of people interested in forming a counterpart organisation. It is anticipated this meeting may result in a decision to establish an institute to represent the interests of Myanmar educational, civil, business, legal and other entities in their dealings with Australia, and potentially other countries.
As another next step, the AMI formation committee has also begun taking advice from various stakeholders about the formal structure and governance of the Institute, keeping in mind the need for strong institutional support, the need to maximise opportunities for funding for the institute and members, and the need to provide ownership and voice to all members and affiliated organisation. The latter needs to include universities or other educational institutions, development sector and civil society organisations, business groups, foundations, professional associations, Australian government agencies (at all levels), diaspora bodies and members of the concerned public.
This week an enhanced website will be launched, which includes the first conference updates and video links to many of the keynote presentations. Please visit the site at www.aummi.edu.au. This new site will shortly allow up-to-date messaging on our activities, as well as provide space for collaboration and sharing of information amongst working groups.
A common feeling at the conference was that nothing quite like our Institute exists elsewhere, and the formation committee has launched what might become a new model. The potential of AMI for supporting research and other cooperation through new ways of collaborating with partners in both countries will need to be supported by new ways of prioritising activity, especially as Myanmar is a country with almost limitless areas of potential action.
Aspects of this prioritisation action will be covered in separate messages over the coming weeks about the work within the six priority pillars, and by updates on the formal structure and governance of the Institute after the meeting in Yangon with Myanmar stakeholders in early May.
We look forward to continued partnership and collaboration with all stakeholders as we move forward and build the Institute together.
by Chris Lamb and the formation Committee