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Key first NZ prime minister to visit Burma

Thursday 22 Nov 2012 5:28 p.m.

By Mike McRoberts

John Key has become the first New Zealand prime minister to visit Burma, also known as Myanmar, in a further endorsement of the changes made by the troubled nation.

Burma’s shift towards democracy after five decades of military rule has seen the lifting of sanctions, and a thawing in diplomatic relations.

Rudyard Kipling once described Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the former capital of Burma, as a “golden mystery”. And while it's doubtful Mr Key's trip will provide many answers, no one can question the radical change this country has seen in two years.

“You've seen Aung San Suu Kyi released and she's now the leader of the opposition," says Mr Key. "You've seen the regime welcoming back people who have fled Myanmar, they're genuinely moving towards democracy, it's not a perfect democracy and there are issues around human rights but they're making quite rapid progress.”

Earlier today Mr Key met New Zealand companies doing business in Burma, like dairy giant Fonterra, whose trade has doubled in the past year, and engineering firm Beca, whose expertise gained from the Christchurch earthquake is helping bolster Burma’s building stock.

New foreign investment laws mean credit card companies like MasterCard and Visa can now operate, ending the cash-only economy.

One Kiwi businessman says the political reform has meant the Burmese are no longer ruled by fear.

“When you spoke with people, they were very lovely people, very friendly people and happy people but they would be frightened to make a decision in business so we had to have a lot of patience going through that period of time and I’m seeing change in that,” says David Borrill of Oceanic Communications.

And in Burma, they know patience. Twenty-four years ago Ms Suu Kyi rallied in front of half a million people urging them to end the military regime.

Meeting her in person will be a highlight of Mr Key's visit here.

“I mean this is someone who is kind of a Mandela-type figure effectively, I mean she's put behind her the years and years of house arrest and tried to put the best foot forward in terms of development of Myanmar for her people. She's an integral part of the regime effectively as leader of the opposition, she is legitimising the move to democracy, so it'll be very interesting to see what she says."

When he meets both Ms Suu Kyi and the current president, Mr Key will be asking them how New Zealand might assist in the 2015 elections and in the country's overall development, including the announcement of an aid package based around agriculture and education.

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