Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Key's Asian push: The Herald interview

Prime Minister John Key is the first NZ premier to visit Burma. Long a pariah state, the East Asian nation - known in the West from Rudyard Kipling's poem Mandalay - is cautiously emerging from decades of military rule. In this interview Mr Key reflects on the trip and meeting with its famous pro-democracy leader.

Prime Minister John Key meets with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Photo / Alan Gibson
Prime Minister John Key meets with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Photo / Alan Gibson

What were your personal impressions of Aung San Suu Kyi?

What you see is what you get. She said to us exactly the same things she said to the media. There was no change in tone or opinion.

She has very strong views and that is totally understandable. She is obviously a woman of great principle and she fights for what she believes in.

Who first suggested you visit Burma?

My trusty foreign policy adviser [Ben King] and it worked because of location - it is close to Cambodia - and because we as a Government genuinely do believe that the Myanmar [Burma] Government is making progress. I don't think we are naive to that progress. We understand it is not all perfect. It's a long way from perfection, but fairly much every country is recognising them now and taking sanctions off them and trying to encourage them. The other EAS leaders have been very strong in their personal views to me. Certainly [President Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono of Indonesia and [Prime Minister] Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore have been very much of the view that [Burmese President] Thein Sein is quite genuine in his progress.

What's been the highlight of the trip to Burma?

There's been a few. Obviously Aung San Suu Kyi, because she is in a unique club of people who are remarkable in what they have done. I've never had an opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela and probably never will so I'd put her in that category. But just coming to Naypyitaw [the capital city] has been pretty remarkable in terms of the buildings. I told the president [who will visit next month], 'don't expect this in Wellington'.

Does it remind you of Pyongyang?

I haven't been there but it reminds [me] of Istana in Malaysia. It's absolutely incredible. I wasn't surprised that the New Zealand media asked the question - for a country that is truly poor how can they fund this? I asked the President about it, and when they first started making a move to democracy, and he said about 2003. This was kind of the pathway through. It is not entirely unusual in Asia, and in fact around the world, for this very opulent sort of look.

In the improved bilateral relations you are emphasising the potential for economic development for New Zealand and what we can get out of it. Don't you feel for the Burmese people?

Well, in fact it is probably the other way round. I'm not seriously believing New Zealand is going to make a lot of money in Burma or Myanmar in day one. I think over time there are real opportunities here, just because of the size of the population and the base they are coming from. But a lot of what we are really talking about is giving technology transfer to help the people of Myanmar.

We feel enormously for them but the question you have to ask is 'how do you deliver an increase in their living standards and their future opportunities?' and the only ways through that are employment, food security and education. That is where the Government is focused.

You said in a press briefing with President Thein Sein that New Zealanders were passionate about human rights.

I care about people's human rights and, as a country, we have a very proud record indeed. But I'm also realistic about what we can do ... we can raise those issues with leaders and we can talk about those issues, and we do that. Moral persuasion over a period of time makes a difference, but we shouldn't be naive to think that just because we raise it in a meeting it will make all those problems go away. It won't and it doesn't.

Can you have real democracy in Burma and still keep the ban on motorbikes?

You could if the voters had the chance to vote out the Government that had such a policy. But apparently the genesis of the ban was that one of the generals' sons was killed on one so they just got rid of them.

On the East Asia Summit, where you worked with President Obama on a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) meeting, do you feel a bit like Obama's deputy on trade?

By riding shotgun to him? I think what it does is it genuinely reflects that he wants to get a deal done. He sees New Zealand as a country that promotes free trade and he can use me a bit as the - I don't want to put it as the good cop-bad cop - but there are a number of people who made suggestions. He didn't ask me to push back on those suggestions but I don't believe they would fit within the context of a comprehensive deal. So when I pushed back on them he agreed with me, but he didn't have to do it. It is a good relationship that has emerged between us and we chat about lots of things.

What were the proposals you disagreed with on TPP?

One suggestion was a watered down TPP, a sort of TPP light - a top line one that we'd all buy into but also a lighter version if some countries couldn't get there, which I think is like shooting for the bottom because everyone will gravitate there. The second was that other countries are allowed to join. I think we are getting to the point that if you are serious about doing it in 2013, at some point you've just got to say let's forget about widening up membership. Let's just get a deal done then let's worry about expanding it.

Do you think he'll visit New Zealand as President?

My foreign policy adviser keeps reminding me to ask. I am not so confident. I hope so and he will probably come to Australia and he has obviously been before. He might. He really wants to. But the problem is that there just aren't areas of disagreement. There's obviously the anti-nuclear issue but that has been put behind us long ago. In a world that is so intense for him with so little ... I know he personally wants to.

Was it a good trip?

I reckon really good. The thing about EAS is we got everything we wanted. We got the President saying let's try and get a deal by the end of 2013. We said to him 'do you want us to say this in the press because [if] you do, it will be reported and we'll be held to account on it?' and he said yes, absolutely. That doesn't mean we'll get a deal. There's a lot of scepticism from those that aren't involved in TPP. But he's really serious about it. He thinks there aren't that many levels for him to pull. It's hard. They've got very low interest rates, they're printing money, they've got big fiscal deficits. What things can he do to stimulate the economy? That's one of them. It might fail but it won't fail by want of trying. It was a pretty interesting meeting just generally. I know a lot of those leaders really well now. I've got to the point where it's quite a personal relationship with all of them - the Sultan of Brunei, to Yudhoyono [Indonesia], [Yoshihiko] Noda [Japanese Prime Minister ] all these guys. I've met them lots now and know them well.

And coming here [Burma] was ... well, I hope I get back for the East Asia Summit [in 2014] but you just never know in life.

- NZ Herald

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