Australia eases defence curbs as Myanmar leader visits

President Thein Sein became Myanmar's first head of state to visit Australia since 1974, winning aid and defence concessions as he reaps new fruits of his liberalisation policies.

As the once pariah country approaches the second anniversary of a quasi-civilian regime led by the ex-general taking power, Canberra said it was increasing its support to recognise the reforms.

"As a close neighbour, Australia will benefit from a more open and prosperous Myanmar that is fully integrated into the region," said Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the country formerly known as Burma.

"Australia's commitment to expand its constructive engagement with Myanmar recognises the unprecedented process of change underway there towards political freedom and the new opportunity this brings to help promote the prosperity of Myanmar and its people."

While Canberra said its arms embargo would remain, it announced an easing of restrictions on defence cooperation including humanitarian and disaster relief activities, as well as peacekeeping.

It will also appoint a defence attache to Myanmar and a trade commissioner.

Gillard said Aus$20 million (US$20.7 million) would be provided over two years for "strengthening democratic institutions, promoting human rights, improving economic governance and advancing the rule of law".

It will include funding for the Myanmar Human Rights Commission and a visit by Myanmar ministers to Australia to draw on the experience of mining experts.

Mining is considered vital to the Asian nation's future, but there are concerns about corruption, environmental safeguards and communities being displaced.

The trip is the latest example of Thein Sein's new-found globetrotting diplomacy that has seen him address the UN General Assembly, meet a host of European Union leaders and be feted at a number of international summits.

Myanmar has surprised observers with its reforms following the end of nearly half a century of military rule in 2011, prompting Western nations to start rolling back sanctions.

Since Thein Sein took over the presidency, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, elections have been held, and long-detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected into parliament.

Thein Sein said he was determined his country continue on its democratic path.

"It is my sincere wish and aspiration that, like Australia, Myanmar will enjoy peace, democracy and prosperity," he said.

Thein Sein added that he was in Australia not just to request support and assistance, but to explain the changes that have been taking place.

"I hope that you appreciate that what we are undertaking has no equal in modern times. This is not just a simple transition... but a transition from military rule to democratic rule," he said.

"From 60 years of armed conflict to peace. And from centrally controlled and isolated economy to one that can end poverty and create real opportunities for all our people."

John Blaxland, a Myanmar expert at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, said Canberra was keen to reward Thein Sein, but also wanted to keep Myanmar onside as the next ASEAN chair.

"The government wants to reward (him) for the work he has done, but it also partly Australia burnishing its regional credentials ahead of Myanmar becoming the next ASEAN chair," he said.

"ASEAN is a significant part of Australia's security and trading outlook and it is good for Australia if ASEAN is stable, robust and secure."

Myanmar is due to assume the Association of Southeast Asian Nations chairmanship from Brunei next year.

Australia's trade commission Austrade said Myanmar is an emerging economy with extensive natural resources, a growing population and numerous opportunities for its companies.

  • How a mom stole a car in under 60 seconds 13 hours ago
    How a mom stole a car in under 60 seconds

    “I didn't steal your car but I think my mom may have. It's a long story. I'll explain, but your car is safe and sound," read the flier posted in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s a strange tale that began when Cheyrl Thorpe was asked by her daughter Nekisia Davis to dog sit her Pomeranian at her apartment, according to New York Magazine.

  • All-new 2015 Subaru Outback reestablishes higher ground 16 hours ago
    All-new 2015 Subaru Outback reestablishes higher ground

    Much of Subaru’s modern day success in America can be attributed to one car: the Outback. Born in 1994 as a response to the growing popularity of SUVs, the Outback established a winning formula of combining a high-riding suspension, butch body cladding and big round fog lights to its comfortable, no-nonsense Legacy wagon. It is the kind of unique product that only a quirky company like Subaru could build, and was one that kept Subaru from slipping into ubiquity even as traditional SUVs and crossovers have taken over the world.

  • Custom faux-tique electric tram aims to replace New York's horses over the neigh-sayers 16 hours ago
    Custom faux-tique electric tram aims to replace New York's horses over the neigh-sayers

    For the record, it's the year 2014. I mention that in case someone reading this story about a push to replace horses with motorized carriages thinks they've stumbled onto some archival piece by accident. It's been more than 100 years since the first vehicles began to trundle around Manhattan, but the last remaining vestiges of horse-powered transport in the city could be nigh — if the backers of a massive electric wagon get their way.

  • Singaporeans slam NEA's $120 licence requirement for tissue sellers
    Singaporeans slam NEA's $120 licence requirement for tissue sellers

    Singaporeans on social media reacted angrily to news that tissue sellers at hawker centres and street corners are being required to pay for an annual licence.

  • Heartbreaking texts from students on sinking S. Korea ferry
    Heartbreaking texts from students on sinking S. Korea ferry

    Heart-wrenching messages of fear, love and despair, sent by high school students from a sinking South Korean ferry, added extra emotional weight Thursday to a tragedy that has stunned the nation. Nearly 300 people -- most of them students on a high school trip to a holiday island -- are still missing after the ferry capsized and sank on Wednesday morning. Mom, I love you," student Shin Young-Jin said in a text to his mother that was widely circulated in the South Korean media.

  • ‘Huge’ Hindu, Buddhist statues against Islam, ex-judge says
    ‘Huge’ Hindu, Buddhist statues against Islam, ex-judge says

    KUALA LUMPUR, April 16 — The “huge” statues at a Hindu temple in Batu Caves and Buddhist temple in Penang are an affront to Islam as the religion forbids idolatry, a retired Court of Appeals judge...