June 2021

Committees: Australia's response to the coup in Myanmar

Myanmar's military coup of 1 February 2021 has been a tragedy for that nation and its people. More than 850 people have died in the army's brutal crackdown. Many more have been injured by the army's unlawful use of violence against peaceful protesters and those engaged in civil disobedience. Over 6,000 people have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, and the economy is contracting and shortages of basic goods have begun to appear. Cash is in short supply. Confidence in the banking system is low. Myanmar's currency, the kyat, has depreciated by 17 per cent since the coup and growing international pressure has prompted major multinationals such as Japanese giant Kirin Holdings to divest from some of the main military owned enterprises, including Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited. Woodside Petroleum, an Australian company, has put its operations in Myanmar on hold, and I expect other international firms are likely to follow.

With high import dependence and demand for foreign capital, prolonged political instability and investor uncertainty is likely to cause the economy to contract and deteriorate further in coming months. This means that the significant economic and development gains that Myanmar has made in the past decade under a period of largely peaceful civilian and democratic rule are being almost entirely reversed by the developments of only the past five months.

Internal instability and the prospect of a full-blown civil war in Myanmar are on the rise. Protesters who previously engaged in passive disobedience and peaceful protest are increasingly taking up arms. In cities, underground operatives are targeting and killing officials in the military government. In the countryside, newly formed militias are attacking army units and army outposts. According to Radio Free Asia, more than 300 bombs have exploded in police stations, state owned banks and government offices since February, and there are signs now of growing coordination between these newly formed rebel groups and the longstanding ethnic armed groups, which have long been a presence on Myanmar's border and in Myanmar's border regions.

Myanmar's rapid downward spiral should be of alarm not only to those of us here in Australia but also to the region. The prospect of a failed state gripped by civil war in the heart of the Indo-Pacific is an alarming one indeed. We do not want another Syria at the heart of Asia. The Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee heard from a number of experts, groups, organisations and representatives of the Myanmar diaspora community, who brought valuable expertise and advice to bear on what is a complicated and challenging issue. We are very appreciative, as a committee, for the perspectives and expertise they offered, and I wish to place on record here our appreciation for the many submissions and the correspondence we received and our gratitude to those who appeared before the committee in person.

The report I table here today makes a number of recommendations to the government about our response to the Myanmar crisis and how we can positively influence developments there. It remains mindful, however, that the influence of outside actors within Myanmar is limited, especially with respect to the Tatmadaw, the military rulers within Myanmar, and that neighbouring countries and regional bodies, most particularly ASEAN, offer the best prospects for success. For this reason, the report recommends that Australia continue to liaise closely with ASEAN and find ways to support and encourage ASEAN efforts to restore civilian rule in Myanmar, including through the implementation of ASEAN's five-point consensus on Myanmar.

The committee support the suspension of Australia's defence cooperation program with Myanmar and its imposition of an arms embargo. It also urges Australia to contribute actively to growing international support for a global arms embargo on Myanmar, as reflected in the passage of the resolution through the UN General Assembly last Friday. The committee also recommends that Australia reconsider the issue of the imposition of targeted autonomous sanctions against a number of senior figures within the Tatmadaw, that we continue our development assistance program, but that we make sure that it's channelled through nongovernment partners and reaches civil society and supports basic humanitarian needs, and, furthermore, that the prospects of a pathway to permanent residency for the large number of Myanmar nationals who are now here in Australia and rightfully fearful of returning be explored.

I want to thank other members of the committee, including my deputy chair, for the constructive attitude they took. I also want to thank and place on the record here my thanks and appreciation to the secretariat for pulling together witnesses' expert testimony and the report at short notice. I commend this report to the House.