Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Questions without Notice
Burma and China
My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the current situation in Burma following Cyclone Nargis and update the House on Australia’s contribution to relief efforts? Will the Prime Minister also inform the House of developments overnight in China?
I thank the honourable member for his question. This cyclone hit Burma with devastating force on 2 and 3 May. Burma’s state media has put the death toll at 23,000, with 37,000 unaccounted for. The United Nations by contrast estimates up to 100,000 deaths and 1.5 million people left homeless. The cyclone has caused massive damage to property, infrastructure and communications. The concern now is that a population that is already weak and vulnerable will face a very real risk of the spread of disease and of starvation.
It is hard to get a clear picture of precisely the impact on the ground in Burma because of the attitude and posture adopted by the regime. It has been appallingly difficult to get assistance into Burma and, once in, to have any guarantee of its proper distribution. The response of the regime in Burma to this crisis has been absolutely callous. Those paying the price for this callousness have been the long-suffering Burmese people.
I am pleased to inform the House that we are making some very modest progress. Some relief supplies from international donors have been getting through, although it is estimated to be only about one-tenth of what is needed. I am pleased to say that this morning a Royal Australian Air Force C17 Globemaster arrived in Rangoon and unloaded much needed supplies. At our request the Burmese government agreed to let our military aircraft land to deliver its supplies. On board the C17 are around 31 tonnes of supplies from Defence and AusAID. It includes water containers, water purification tablets, bedding, blankets, tarpaulins and medical supplies.
Thus far we have announced that we are providing $25 million in assistance to Burma, the largest contribution of any country to date.
The honourable member opposite has intervened to say that that amount is pathetic. I have here a list of some 25 nation states; we are the largest contributor. Of the $103 million committed to Burma globally this government has contributed one-quarter of that amount, and those opposite describe that amount as pathetic. This is a gross partisan intervention in a humanitarian intervention of which the government and the country should be proud. Half of that money will go to the United Nations flash appeal; the other half will be for the Australian non-government organisations and UN agencies in Burma.
The supplies that have been distributed into Rangoon through the RAAF flight will of course be distributed through the Burmese authorities, as is happening with the humanitarian supplies delivered by other countries right now. We would have preferred them to have been delivered by the UN and by NGOs; that has not been possible. In a crisis like this you have to deal with the cards that you have got. That means working with the Burmese authorities. As the situation becomes clearer we will consider further assistance, including for the reconstruction phase.
We will continue to work with our friends and partners around the region, and to work to press the Burmese government to improve on their response to the crisis which to date has been demonstrably inadequate. On Friday, on this matter, I spoke to the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. He expressed to me and has said publicly that he is immensely frustrated at the exceptionally slow response to the crisis, because getting access to Burma is so difficult. Over the course of the weekend I have spoken also to the Prime Minister of Singapore, the current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—which Burma is a member of—and to the President of Indonesia about how we can work together more to get more assistance into Burma. The Minister for Foreign Affairs discussed our responses with the Japanese minister for foreign affairs in Tokyo last week and has also been in contact with the UK Foreign Secretary. We have also been liaising closely with our friends and allies in the United States, and also with Thailand and other partners in the region. And we are using every available diplomatic channel, including calling in the Burmese Ambassador here in Canberra to urge the regime to allow greater access, as we have urged also through our representative in Rangoon. We are doing what we can to assist these people in Burma who are suffering most grievously from this natural calamity.
Natural disasters have affected our region on a wider scale, as we have seen from events overnight in China. We have now reports of a major earthquake in south-western China that has caused massive damage and significant loss of life. Communications and roads have been cut off in the worst affected areas. There are reports of up to 80 per cent of housing in some areas being destroyed. The death toll is still not known; it is regrettably very high. Media reports are suggesting that it could be 10,000 or more. This is already the highest death toll in an earthquake in China since the Tangshan earthquake of 1976.
On behalf of all Australians I extend our sympathy to those affected by the earthquake in China. I have written to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao this morning expressing this and offering Australian assistance, including search and rescue capabilities of the states and territories of Australia through Emergency Management Australia. This has been followed up directly with Chinese officials. Australia stands ready to offer assistance.
These crises remind us afresh of the importance of developing effective regional mechanisms, and to have those in place to respond to major natural disasters across our vast region where, regrettably, natural disasters on a massive scale are becoming far too frequent. With this in mind we will be working closely with our ASEAN and other partners in the region to enhance the region’s natural disaster monitoring, coordination and response mechanisms because I have great concerns for the future should disaster strike again, particularly in the region’s more remote parts. In the meantime, on behalf of the government, the parliament and the nation we express our sympathy for those who have suffered immensely and whose lives have been lost as a consequence of these recent calamities in our region.
Mr Speaker, on indulgence, I strongly support the Prime Minister in offering sympathies on behalf of the parliament, and I do so also on behalf of the opposition, to the people of Burma and to the people of China. I urge the Prime Minister to continue to do everything he possibly can to support the people of Burma, in particular, and to assist the Chinese authorities.