Audrey Young

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

Burma turns on the dazzle

Flags and fanfare as New Zealand PM makes first visit to emerging country

John Key says New Zealand will announce a diplomatic presence for Burma next year. Photo / Alan Gibson
John Key says New Zealand will announce a diplomatic presence for Burma next year. Photo / Alan Gibson

[President Thein Sein's transcript follows story]

Burma's capital, Naypyidaw, turned on an extraordinary welcome for Prime Minister John Key's visit yesterday.

Thousands of young Burmese lined the road from the airport to Parliament, waving New Zealand and Burmese flags for the first visit by a New Zealand leader.

Giant billboards welcomed him as his motorcade sped along the vast and nearly empty highways, one as large as eight lanes each way.

The highway also displayed a couple of large billboards declaring "agricultural development through mechanisation".

In the several kilometres between the signs were oxen and carts.

Mr Key's visit was more than brilliant photo opportunities. He said New Zealand would announce a diplomatic presence in Burma next year.

New Zealand would also give $1 million in humanitarian aid to Rahkine Province where ethnic violence has displaced thousands of people.

Mr Key has already announced that $6 million will be spent developing a dairy farm to help Burma's agricultural capabilities.

Mr Key was given an official guard of honour outside the presidential palace and was welcomed by President Thein Sein, a former military general.

The talks between Mr Key and Mr Thein lasted more than an hour.

They spoke to media afterwards, though President Thein made only a statement.

Mr Key confirmed that the President was likely to visit New Zealand in mid-December after a visit to Australia.

Both leaders stressed the economic development potential in the bilateral relationship.

Mr Thein said investments through New Zealand combined with his country's rich natural resources, young workforce and huge market would be mutually beneficial.

Mr Key said he raised the issue of human rights in the talks and was encouraged by what he heard.

Thirty-thousand political prisoners had been released in the past few years.

"[Burma] is actively working towards establishing not only the strongest democracy it can, but world-class human rights."

Mr Key also confirmed that the Burmese young leaders programme run by UnionAID in Wellington would still receive government funding.

He was scheduled to meet Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi late last night [New Zealand time].

Mr Key is the latest in a series of leaders who have made their way to Burma as it undertakes democratic reform.

Others have included British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

The new capital was commissioned before Burma began democratic reforms in 2010.

It is sited on a plateau between Rangoon and Mandalay.

War graves service for Kiwis

"We shall remember them. We shall remember them."

The words of Wing Commander John Lovatt of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at the Taukkyan Cemetery had a tinge of irony about them.

Mostly, these eight New Zealanders who died in Burma in World War II had been forgotten.

But yesterday they became the centre of attention when Prime Minister John Key laid a wreath and placed a rose on each of their graves.

Now they will serve their country again as a bond between New Zealand and Burma, as the former military dictatorship opens up to the West.

Warrant Officer John Spencer Horan received the first tribute from Mr Key.

He was killed on January 9, 1945, aged 24. He left behind a wife and an infant son.

New Zealand Defence Force briefing records show he was a tail gunner in a Supermarine Sea Otter flying boat with 292 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force which was attacked by several Japanese aircraft. "He continued to fire despite having his left hand shot off," the notes said.

"He stayed in position and fired 800 rounds until he was killed by wounds to the head and chest."

The rest of the crew managed to land and survive.

The graves are part of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and are impeccably maintained.

Every Armistice Day and Anzac Day the British, Australian and American Embassies in Rangoon hold memorial services there. New Zealand has not attended in the past.

President Thein Sein of Burma made a rare appearance before reporters last week after talks with Prime Minister John Key at the presidential palace in Naypyitaw. This is the transcript, with minimal editing, of what he said through an interpreter:

"Firstly I would say that the Prime Minister's visit to our country is a milestone in bilateral relations since this is the very first ever head of Government's visit from New Zealand to our country...

"We are of the view that this visit of His Excellency to our country is of great importance and an historic one because this is the first ever visit a Prime Minister from New Zealand to visit Myanmar [Burma] in 54 years, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries.

"Similarly you all may be aware that recently President Obama paid a visit to our country. He was also the first US president to visit our country. So these two visits are of significant importance and great importance to our country.

"We are also very much appreciative of the New Zealand Government's ...support and recognition given to our democratisation and reform process taken in our country.

"The reform process that we are undertaking is because our Government is trying to fulfill the desire and the will of the people of Myanmar.

"In regard to the political reforms undertaken by our Government, there are two priority areas, that is, to have domestic political peace and stability in our country. Secondly we are trying to put an end to the ethnic armed groups and to build peace with the ethnic armed groups in our country. We must say that while undertaking the political reforms, there are many successes. At the same time we are also faced with challenges and obstacles ahead as we undertake the reforms.

"As we move forward towards democracy and to have a flourishing democracy, it is of great importance that we have economic development in our country. For economic development we are trying to invite foreign investment into our country. As you are aware, for the past 20 years because of the economic sanctions imposed against our country, it was an obstacle and hindrance to attract investment into our country...Therefore, we have welcomed.. economic sanctions lifted against our country ....

"We have been able to adopt a new foreign investment law that is very investor-friendly and creates a favorable climate for investment in our country.

"...We discussed the potential areas of economic co-operation between our two countries. As you are aware, Myanmar is endowed with natural resources and we have a young workforce and a huge market because of our geographic location.

"With this investment from New Zealand combined with our natural resources, we can have a mutually beneficial economic co-operation so we invited New Zealand investors to come and invest in our country. Likewise the New Zealand Prime Minister has shown interest to come and invest in our country and work together for the economic co-operation between our two countries.

"...Human resource development is of great importance for our political as well as economic reforms. In this regard we discussed extensively with the Prime Minister [providing] assistance in the area of education.

"In concluding, we also discussed my forthcoming visit to New Zealand."

- NZ Herald

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