In our national interest? Australia’s position on Myanmar is contradictory, inconsistent and doomed to fail


At the end of last month, the army razed villages in central Burma. Those who could not escape are burned alive. The UN estimates that more than 200,000 people were displaced by the crisis caused by the seizure of power by the military. In the cities, the junta systematically targets medical personnel who risk their lives to provide care. What started as a coup d’etat is now a humanitarian and economic crisis.

The dissident poet Khet Thi wrote: “They can shoot us in the head, but what they don’t know is that the revolution is in the heart”. Soldiers kidnapped him and tore out his heart; the death certificate ruled the cause of a heart attack. The tally of dead civilians stands at over eight hundred. From five thousand people who were detained is an Australian professor Sean Turnell. His crime was to work as an economic adviser to the old government.

The efforts of an unpopular junta to coerce loyalty are also playing out on Australian soil. The Myanmar ambassador has written to academics in the Australian government asking them to pledge allegiance and refrain from participating in the civil disobedience movement which enjoys wide support across Myanmar. Many of these researchers are funded by the Australian government. This sent shockwaves through the Burmese student community in Australia, raising fears that family members could be targeted at home.

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Against a backdrop of violence and repression that experts consider crimes against humanity, Foreign Minister Marise Payne recently explained to the Senate Estimates that the sanctions are not in Australia’s national interest and “would not advance our interests in supporting the ASEAN-led solution.” We – the organizers of a letter signed by 390 Myanmar civil society organizations and sent to the Minister of Foreign Affairs – disagree. Here we want to lay out the flawed analysis behind the current response and define what Australia should do.

Australia’s decision not to impose sanctions and rely solely on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is both shortsighted and inconsistent. Australia’s foreign policy differs from that of ASEAN, especially when it comes to human rights and China. Australia acted independently of ASEAN in the wake of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in 2017 – international tribunals are still examining whether this constitutes genocide – by imposing sanctions on key military figures.

Myanmar is also a narco-state and the methamphetamine laboratory of the world. AFP estimates that up to 70 percent of methamphetamine in Australia originally from Burma. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) expects that following the coup, production of methamphetamine and heroin is expected to increase with a cash-strapped junta relying more and more on illicit savings. In border areas controlled by militias, criminal syndicates produce synthetic drugs and refine heroin. The junta sanctioned drug production and commanders at all levels of the hierarchy received heavy discounts. Increased supply means more methamphetamine in Australia at cheaper prices.

The application of sanctions affirms Australia’s commitment to democratic values ​​and human rights. In accordance with Australia’s own Autonomous Sanctions Bill (2010), state sanctions aim to influence and sanction those responsible. He also sends a message to authoritarian regimes in the region and beyond, while also signaling his support for the people of Myanmar who voted overwhelmingly for a different future, and the 32,000 members of the diaspora here in Australia.

Sanctions should target perpetrators of atrocious crimes, junta-appointed ministers, as well as the financial and commodity flows of the ministries themselves. These include oil and gas, warwood, jade and gems, and illicit off-budget economies such as the drug trade. The endorsement of international justice mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, supports the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for past and current crimes against humanity, including including the recent massacre in Bago. A sophisticated foreign policy response can always keep the door open to engage with Myanmar’s drug police. Failure to do so undermines the actions of other like-minded countries.

It’s no secret, especially in diplomatic circles, that ASEAN’s efforts will be nothing. ASEAN’s non-interference policy is ill-equipped to deal with internal crises among its member countries. Instead, coup architect Min Aung Hlaing used the ASEAN emergency summit in Jakarta as a propaganda stunt to gain legitimacy. Back home, he did not announce the end of the violence until the army controlled the country, mocking the five point consensus agreed at the top.

ASEAN has still not appointed an envoy or envoy of emergency humanitarian assistance. Members remain divided on how to respond. ASEAN members have tried unsuccessfully to water down a recent resolution on Myanmar at the United Nations General Assembly by removing calls for an arms embargo. Deliberate efforts to undermine an international response will have devastating effects on civilians in Myanmar. A unique dependence on ASEAN makes Australia tacitly complicit.

Australia allocated AU $ 5 million at the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center for Disaster Management, although he has no experience in the field of political crises. The Center was used by the Myanmar government following the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya as a blockade tactic, claiming progress to the international community when none had been made. Australian taxpayer money would be better spent going to the many border organizations already working to stop an ongoing humanitarian crisis. This lame duck pledge represents aid policy at its worst, legitimizing the illegitimate junta by granting humanitarian access to an agency that is incapable and ill-equipped to carry out its mandate.

Since the coup, the political landscape has irrevocably changed. Opposition movements have emerged with a progressive new agenda that was unimaginable just a few months ago – one that includes restoration Rohingya citizenship rights, ending the world’s longest civil war and tackling Myanmar’s intractable governance problems (such as drugs and human trafficking).

Australia should step up its support for Myanmar’s opposition movement. This includes recognition of the Government of National Unity, which is made up of elected MPs and has made clear efforts to build an inclusive national coalition based on federal democracy. The solutions to the crisis can be found within the Burmese opposition, which is asking to be heard and seeking support. Supporting this vision of the future is the best chance for an inclusive and equitable society and a reliable regional partner.

Only decisive and concerted international action will change the course of the military junta. The alternative is economic collapse which will increase regional instability and present a boon to organized crime, and a humanitarian crisis leading to exodus of refugees. Both will be experienced directly in Australia. In Myanmar there will be a lost generation.

The sad irony, of course, is that Australia – given its position in the region, strong democratic institutions, close ties to ASEAN, and as a member of the Quad and Five Eyes diplomatic groups – is perfectly placed to play a leading role. The costs of inaction are already borne by the Burmese people, while the repercussions on Australians are only beginning to be understood.

Ma Sandar and Ko Lin organized a letter signed by 390 Myanmar civil society organizations calling for increased Australian action and leadership on Myanmar. Ma Sandar is currently in hiding in Myanmar and is an alumnus of the Australian National University. Ko Lin seeks refuge on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Both are wanted by the junta. Their names have been changed to protect their identity. Tony neil is a doctoral student at the London School of Economics; he is based in Australia.

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