Participating in multilateral advocacy to apply pressure to the Tatmadaw was raised as a key means by which the Australian Government could support the return to stability and democracy in Myanmar. In detailing work that can occur through bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations (UN), inquiry participants strongly encouraged Australia to work with international partners to effect change in Myanmar. The Committee also heard views about the regional reactions to the coup.
DFAT stated that the Australian Government is ‘trying to make sure that the region unites and the situation is de-escalated,’ and that it is also working ‘with international partners to try to engage the military and make sure that [Myanmar] return[s] to some form of democratic transition’:
[The situation] calls for active and constructive diplomacy on a variety of levels: in both bilateral and multilateral arenas, with international organisations, and in regional diplomacy and working with ASEAN. It really calls for concerted action at every level.
DFAT advised that ‘as at 22 April, the Foreign Minister and DFAT senior officials have discussed developments in Myanmar with representatives’ from 25 different nations.
In April, the Lowy Institute suggested some specific measures Australia could implement ‘to build a coordinated global response that puts peace and stability above rivalry and rancour’:
The government should consider appointing an envoy to lead talks with our neighbours and the great powers, building a broader coalition to lean on the Tatmadaw. An international conference to address the looming humanitarian crisis should also be considered.
The ANU Myanmar Research Group suggested that the Australian Government can set a standard and build a common platform for other nations in the region to follow:
… while Australia does not have significant leverage on the Generals, the government needs to set a standard and appeal to our Asian partners who do. … Australia’s response may be symbolic but is important for building common approaches to apply significant pressure. For instance, the military relies on regional financial centres in Singapore: freezing assets and blocking transactions there would have an immediate impact. Australia should coordinate with Quad partners – the US, India, and Japan – to build a common platform and enlist other countries and businesses to apply punitive and targeted economic measures.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
ASEAN was highlighted by inquiry participants as a multilateral body that could affect instrumental change in Myanmar, and encouraged Australia to engage with it. Since the first public hearing in April, it was seen that ASEAN had taken a large role in the matter.
In April, DFAT emphasised that ‘ASEAN’s centrality and role in the region are vital. We want ASEAN to play an active role.’ DFAT illustrated the pivotal relationship that Australia has with ASEAN and noted that it is a ‘useful forum for member states and dialogue partners to raise the issue in Myanmar.’
The Australian Government has used ASEAN as a platform to raise concerns. DFAT advised in April that concerns were directly raised by the Department at the ASEAN-Australia Forum, an annual dialogue at the senior officials level. The Department of Defence highlighted that it also raised concerns at the officials level:
On 28 March, the Chief of the Defence Force joined defence chiefs from 11 other nations to urge the Myanmar security forces to cease all violence. At officials level, we’ve made our position clear at a number of ASEAN and defence officials’ meetings.
An ASEAN Leaders’ meeting was convened on 24 April 2021, and a five-point consensus was developed. The communique released after this meeting outlined that ‘on the situation in Myanmar, the Leaders reached consensus on the following’:
First, there shall be immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise utmost restraint.
Second, constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people.
Third, a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the Secretary-General of ASEAN.
Fourth, ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through the AHA Centre.
Fifth, the special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.
In April, Human Rights Watch warned that Australia may be ‘pandering far too much to the ASEAN countries, who themselves have some questionable leadership.’ The Lowy Institute stated that ASEAN nations may make calculated risks about their own interests:
… that plays into some of the vacillation or divisions in ASEAN: while most of the neighbours don’t like to see the military gunning down so many people, they also fear, in the end, what a Myanmar without a Tatmadaw would look like and whether it would be worse for them.
In May, DFAT noted that implementation of the five-point consensus had not substantially progressed, ‘including on the appointment of an envoy.’
The United Nations (UN)
Inquiry participants called on Australia to support UN activities in Myanmar. The following UN entities were highlighted in discussions:
Independent Investigative Mechanism in Myanmar, established by the UN Human Rights Council,
UN Security Council, and the
UN Special Envoy on Myanmar.
DFAT lauded the actions of the UN on Myanmar since the coup and its ability to play a crucial role in rectifying the crisis there:
… the UN Security Council also made a statement relatively quickly after the coup, and that was good to see. Obviously, for the international community, the UN should and could play a significant role in this. … the UN independent investigative mechanism is an important thing as well, and I hope that we’ll see the UN working with ASEAN and regional players to try to alleviate the situation.
The ANU Myanmar Research Group stated that ‘regrets from the Rohingya crisis by the international community include not getting on-the-ground presence to act as a deterrence to prevent atrocities.’ Human Rights Watch, in April, noted that ‘the UN Special Envoy on Myanmar is in Thailand and has been unable so far to get to Myanmar to meet with the generals directly.’
Relations with China
China’s important geopolitical position in relation to Myanmar was recognised by inquiry participants. DFAT noted that China ‘did participate in the UN Security Council statement that was made.’
Mr Nicholas Coppel added that ‘if the attacks on Chinese interests were to increase and, in particular, if those attacks became attacks on Chinese people, there is a possibility that China might do more’. Mr Coppel noted that:
China has extensive business interests in Myanmar … and we’ve already seen some hostility in Myanmar to Chinese interests in the burning of factories and anti-Chinese sentiment in some of the public demonstrations.
… China has a lot to gain by a restoration of democracy: it can strengthen its own image, both within the country and externally, and it can also protect its own business interests.
Dr Shwe stated that there were perceptions that ‘China was standing with the military junta’, and that ‘it’s really difficult to guess what will happen and how China is going to intervene.’ Human Rights Watch highlighted that the relationship between China and the Tatmadaw is not simple, stating that ‘the Chinese government has also funded a number of the ethnic armed groups’.
The Committee understands that there are complex relations within and between ASEAN nations, and that this led to concerns that ASEAN would not intervene decisively on the Myanmar crisis. The Committee welcomes the five-point consensus adopted by ASEAN leaders on 24 April, and urges its full and timely implementation.
The Committee was also pleased to see the Australian Government engage with ASEAN, along with a range of other multilateral bodies. However, the Committee was concerned that evidence provided at its May public hearing indicated that there have been difficulties in seeing the implementation of the five-point consensus agreed at the ASEAN meeting of 24 April 2021.
The Committee was also concerned by advice that both an ASEAN appointed envoy and the UN Special Envoy on Myanmar have faced obstructions in gaining entry to Myanmar.
The Committee recommends Australia continue to liaise closely with ASEAN countries and find ways to encourage and support ASEAN efforts to restore civilian rule to Myanmar, including implementation of ASEAN’s five-point consensus on Myanmar.