This chapter provides the context in which discussions at the two public hearings on 13 April 2021 and 13 May 2021 occurred. The questions outlined by the Committee in its call for expressions of interest sought to understand the basic background of the events in Myanmar, including seeking views on why the military coup occurred, and how long military rule in Myanmar is likely to last. As people-to-people and business links between Australia and Myanmar have developed in recent years, the Committee was also concerned to hear about the implications for Australians in Myanmar.
The Committee acknowledges the complex history to the political situation in Myanmar, but rather than focus on the complex and contested recent history this chapter describes evidence received about what has occurred in Myanmar since 1 February 2021.
Following a general election on 8 November 2020, the Parliament of Myanmar (the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) was set to open on 1 February 2021. Reuters reported that State Counsellor ‘Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior figures from the [National League of Democracy (NLD) were] detained in an early morning raid’ on 1 February 2021. The Tatmadaw, the military regime in Myanmar, declared a state of emergency and seized power.
The identity of an Australian detained by the Tatmadaw, Professor Sean Turnell, was reported on 6 February 2021. Professor Turnell was an economic adviser to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. At the first hearing, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) expressed concern over the ‘shocking violence’ and use of arbitrary detention by the Tatmadaw:
We continue to strongly condemn the use of lethal force and violence against civilians and urgently call on the Myanmar security forces to exercise restraint and release all those arbitrarily detained, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. We also continue to demand the immediate release and safe departure from Myanmar of Professor Sean Turnell.
DFAT updated the Committee at the second hearing in May, observing that:
The crisis has caused widespread disruption to the Myanmar economy, with dire consequences for the Myanmar people. Essential services are largely crippled, while rising prices for basic commodities and the lack of access to cash are threatening food security for Myanmar’s newly vulnerable people, of whom there are many. Most of Myanmar’s recent development achievements have now been completely reversed, and, as a significant donor, that’s very sad for us to see. A lot of our focus currently is on trying to think of how best we can address these emerging needs in Myanmar. We’re also very concerned that the country is ill-equipped to respond to health challenges, including COVID-19.
Civil disobedience movement
A civil disobedience movement formed in the immediate aftermath of the coup. Ms Nicola Williams, from the Australian National University (ANU) Myanmar Research Group, highlighted the implications of the failure of the Tatmadaw’s military coup:
Myanmar’s junta has failed to gain control of the spiralling economy and state apparatus, particularly at the subnational and local levels. Myanmar state is not ruled by the military; the state is contested, with the illegitimacy of the junta the cause of instability.
Ms Melinda Tun signalled that resistance had resulted in the Tatmadaw’s failure to secure control of the country:
At present, the military does not have effective control over the population or the state apparatus to be recognised as the government of the sovereign state of Myanmar. Ordinary people in Myanmar are showing extraordinary courage to ensure their state, their country, does not fall under military rule.
Dr Tun Aung Shwe stated that ‘because of the civil disobedience movement, the military junta is not able to manage the country, and most of the government services are not able to run properly.’ Inquiry participants noted that Myanmar’s health system was in a state of crisis. The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine observed that:
The military hospitals are not accepting civilian patients. Private and charity hospitals still operating are resource limited—medically, equipment and finances. Deaths have increased. Healthcare staff are legitimately concerned about a devastating third wave of COVID-19 and the increasing combat trauma.
Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA emphasised the scale of the Myanmar people’s resistance to the Tatmadaw:
The civil disobedience movement is huge. It’s the biggest movement in Myanmar’s history. … workers, whether they’re organised or not, have become organised through this movement and play a leading role. But it has meant that the Tatmadaw has struck back against them.
DFAT advised in May that the death toll in Myanmar was reported to be nearly 800. Inquiry participants highlighted that a wide range of civil society, including women’s rights activists, healthcare staff, trade unions, academics, and journalists were being targeted by the Tatmadaw.
Inquiry participants also highlighted that sexual violence was being used by the Tatmadaw as a tool to suppress women.
In April, the ANU Myanmar Research Group stated that ‘the country is likely heading towards a high-intensity civil war. The confluence of these multiple crises brings risks of a failed state scenario, which could destabilise the region.’
The Lowy Institute detailed that the opportunities for rectifying the situation in Myanmar were shrinking in April:
The strength of the civil disobedience movement has surprised the junta and it has grabbed the world’s attention. However, as the Tatmadaw escalates its murderous crackdown, the avenues for resistance and the costs of opposition are rising rapidly.
Mrs Sophia Sarkis called on the Australian Government to act decisively while the Tatmadaw’s control was still tenuous and the violence had not yet dramatically escalated:
We, the Australian Burmese community, request that the Australian government, in solidarity with the Myanmar people, do what it can to stop those atrocities, to stop an imminent civil war occurring, to stop a humanitarian crisis and to assist Myanmar in becoming a true democratic country like Australia, under a civilian government, so that rules of law will be upheld and that the people of Myanmar can live in their own homes safely and enjoy a normal life.
The Committee acknowledges that there has been a history of violence within Myanmar, which generally receives little attention. Dr Jessica Collins stated that ‘for the past 70 years, civil war has been firmly embedded into the lives of rural people’:
Our view of Burma should no longer be relegated to the city centres where politics and the media congregate. It needs to turn to the places that have suffered for too long and stand to suffer more—the rural towns and villages, the jungles hiding terrorised families. There, civil wars still rage alongside this new uprising in which all people of Burma, regardless of identity, are being persecuted and killed.
Australian business sector in Myanmar
The Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) highlighted that Australian business had been growing in Myanmar prior to the military coup:
Australian business in Myanmar had really started to mature, particularly in a few areas: education and training, for example, where Myanmar had become our fastest-growing source market for students coming into Australia, growing at 50 per cent; resources and energy; and agribusiness.
Austrade outlined that the military coup had made it ‘quite difficult for Australian businesses in Myanmar to do business’ due to the ‘considerable disruption to the public services and utilities’. Austrade did note, however, that ‘business interest has been subdued for some time’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Australia Myanmar Institute stated that ‘there’s been very little advice … to the business community in Australia who are working either in Myanmar or from Australia,’ and called for the Australian Government to provide advice to Australian ‘people in Myanmar who are undertaking economic activity. Many of them simply don’t know what they’re supposed to do.’
Mr Nicholas Coppel, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, outlined that Australian businesses may not be able to continue operating in Myanmar:
The implications of the coup for Australians doing business in Myanmar are bleak. The interruption to the internet, banking services and transport systems and the violence on the streets are all making it very difficult for businesses to operate. Many will be reviewing whether they can or should continue in the country. In this environment the Australian Trade and Investment Commission’s resources would be better deployed to more promising markets.
Austrade stated in April that it was ‘actively working with businesses to identify opportunities in markets where the risk-return ratio is more promising’.
Woodside stated in April that ‘our international employees based in Myanmar have been relocated and we remain in contact with our employees who are Myanmar nationals.’ Woodside elaborated that:
Until we see the outlook for Myanmar and its political stability has improved, Woodside will keep all business decisions under review, including considering any guidance from the Australian Government on economic engagement.
As a responsible foreign investor, our conduct is guided by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other relevant international standards. Up until Myanmar was suspended by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Board, Woodside was complying with all relevant Myanmar EITI reporting requirements.
Some inquiry participants called on Australian businesses to suspend operations in Myanmar, for fear of incidentally generating wealth for the Tatmadaw. The Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy suggested that:
In limited situations where extractive projects are ongoing and ceasing those operations would hinder civilian access to electricity or related basic services, companies must agree to deposit revenue payments into protected accounts that are held until a democratic civilian government is restored.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) stated that the Australian Government was incidentally building greater business ties with Myanmar at a time when it should be distancing itself from the Tatmadaw:
Meanwhile, instead of implementing sanctions or suspending ties with Myanmar, the Australian government is pushing ahead with ratifying the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement with ASEAN countries, including Myanmar.
Visibility of Australia’s diplomatic response
In April, DFAT characterised the Australian foreign policy response to the Myanmar coup as ‘active, engaged and sustained diplomacy.’ Mr Ridwaan Jadwat, First Assistant Secretary, DFAT, advised that:
… the Minister has made over 20 calls. She’s been engaged in active regional diplomacy. There have been five ministerial statements and over 33 senior-official level calls. We’ve called in the Myanmar ambassador and spoken to him about eight times. We have joined multilateral statements at the UN Human Rights Council. That’s four statements plus we’ve co-sponsored two resolutions. We’ve joined statements at UNGA, at the [World Trade Organization] and at the [International Labour Organization]. And the Quad statements mentioned Myanmar as well.
DFAT also detailed that it started taking steps prior to the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power:
Foreign Minister Payne’s statement on 1 February, the day of the coup, made our deep concern very clear. … As we were hearing reports of the military contesting the results, on 28 January we signed up to a joint statement affirming support for Myanmar’s democratic transition.
Some inquiry participants perceived that the Australian Government was not sufficiently vocal. Ms Melinda Tun characterised Australia’s diplomatic response as ‘weak, slow and ineffective’ and that now is ‘not the time for quiet diplomacy.’ Ms Tun elaborated that:
… there was a joint statement issued by the Western ambassadors in Myanmar calling out the escalation in violence by the military. The Australian ambassador did not sign up to that statement. That was also reported in the media. So we are not doing enough. We are not doing it vocally enough and we are not representing Australia’s national interest, by being very slow, very ineffective and doing what we’re doing now, which is quiet diplomacy.
The Australia Chin Communities Council envisaged a more domestically engaged and vocal Australian presence on the Myanmar crisis:
We are a little bit upset with the government response. When the joint statements were released by the ambassador in Myanmar, we saw that Australia was not included. This was not just on one occasion; we saw it two or three times. But the letter states that Australia joins the statement. It should be in conjunction with all the ambassadors of democratic nations. We are a little bit disappointed.
Mr Coppel called on the Australian Government to ‘make frequent statements of concern [and] outrage’. Mr Coppel elaborated that these public communications:
… are very important in terms of signalling where we stand to the communities in Myanmar and to the Tatmadaw. And they give a lot of support and encouragement to the people. It is the absence of that which is leading to some of the criticisms of Australia.
In May, DFAT stated that it had made efforts to seek the views of diaspora groups in Australia:
We’re cognisant of the considerable public interest in the grave situation in Myanmar. Last month’s hearing was a useful opportunity for us to listen to experts and to members of the diaspora and civil society articulate their concerns, and also for us to outline the government’s work. Since the last hearing we’ve also made efforts to reach out ourselves and talk to many members of the diaspora, civil society, academia and others to support our policy development in response to the situation in Myanmar.
The Committee received evidence about the tragic deaths in Myanmar, and the impact that this has had across the whole of Myanmar, and condemns this unconstitutional coup and the overthrow of the legitimately elected legislature and government. The Committee heard that society in Myanmar has stopped functioning in the wake of the coup, and that it is worried that many of the gains made in recent years have been lost.
The Committee was grateful to receive evidence from members of the Myanmar diaspora in Australia, as well as other experts, some of whom had recently returned from Myanmar. Their accounts told of the great fears held for the safety of their family, friends and colleagues in Myanmar.
The Committee heard that Australia was perceived to be engaging in ‘quiet diplomacy.’ The Committee also heard that in April there had been a lack of communication between the Australian Government and the Myanmar diaspora in Australia. The Committee acknowledges that following its public hearing, DFAT advised that the Australian Government sought to reach out to the diaspora. The Committee expects that such engagement would be ongoing, including by DFAT.
The Committee understands that between February and March, the Australian Government sought to tread carefully with the hope that consular cases, such as that of Professor Sean Turnell, would be resolved. The Committee itself was also wary of these sensitivities during the early stages of this inquiry activity.
The Committee acknowledges that the situation in Myanmar remains fluid. The Committee was concerned to hear that there was a sense that a resolution was not forthcoming, and that there was a sense from some inquiry participants of an escalation of the civil war.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government continue to pursue the restoration of civilian rule in Myanmar as a foreign policy objective.