Friday, 20 May 2022

Australia not appointing ambassador to Myanmar amid moves to downgrade diplomatic ties

Source ABC, 16 May

Australia is moving to downgrade diplomatic ties with Myanmar as it tries to avoid legitimising the military junta that has seized power and violently suppressed protests in the South-East Asian country.

Key points:

  • The new Australian representative in Myanmar will operate as the head of mission with the title of Charge d'Affaires
  • The decision has been applauded by human rights groups and the country's political opposition 
  • Australia is still trying to secure the release of detained Australian Sean Turnell

The ABC has been told that a senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) official has been selected to replace the former ambassador to Myanmar, Andrea Faulkner, who finished her term in April.

But the new Australian representative – who has not yet been given permission to travel to Myanmar — will not present her credentials to the head of the junta, and will instead operate as the head of mission with the title of chargĂ© d'affaires.

Australian officials are walking a fine line with the strategy.

DFAT hopes it will allow them to deploy an experienced officer capable of championing Australia's interests in Myanmar without formally recognising the legitimacy of the military, which ousted the elected National League for Democracy government.

Several other Western countries are moving to downgrade ties with Myanmar in a similar way, but human rights groups – many of which have fiercely criticised Australia's decision not to hit the military junta with fresh sanctions – have still applauded the move.

Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told the ABC that Australia's dealings with the junta had largely been ineffective because officials had been too quick to meet with military leaders, and too slow to ramp up economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime.

He said the decision to withhold full recognition was "an indication that Australia may finally be willing to show some teeth" in its diplomatic dealings with the military.

"This is an important step, it's a symbolic step but it's something that [will] generate anger and unhappiness [in] the Myanmar military junta because they want to be internationally recognised," he said.

"So this denial is an important step to say 'your coup is illegal, and the rights abuses you are committing are outrageous and unacceptable'."

Myanmar's exiled civilian-led National Unity Government (NUG) has also praised the decision.

Dr Tun-Aung Shwe – who represents the NUG in Australia – said it would "strengthen the Myanmar people's trust in Australia".

"We all know that the junta has always propagandised and exploited diplomatic occasions for its own cause to claim to be recognised by international governments and communities," he told the ABC.

"It is particularly welcome that the Australian Government understands this situation well and avoids conveying any sense of legitimacy to military rule in Myanmar."

However, the strategy still brings risks.

Australia wants to retain access to senior members of the junta — in part so it can press for the release of jailed Australian academic Sean Turnell – although human rights groups have repeatedly declared that such meetings are useless and risk elevating military leaders who seized power illegally.

A couple smiling for a photo.
Sean Turnell (right) was arrested in Yangon five days after Myanmar's military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.(Supplied)

Australian officials say they need to use every opportunity to press for Mr Turnell's release and urge the most influential members of the junta to implement the five-point consensus devised by ASEAN to tackle Myanmar's political crisis.

The former Australian ambassador, Andrea Faulkner, met with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing just before she departed the country in April.

DFAT deputy secretary Katrina Cooper told Senate Estimates hearings last month that Ms Faulkner "reiterated Australia's concerns about the situation in Myanmar" when meeting Min Aung Hlaing, as well as urging the Myanmar military to "cease violence, release arbitrary detainees, engage in dialogue and ensure unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance".

Ms Cooper said the ambassador also "called on the regime to release those who had been arbitrarily detained in Myanmar, including Professor Sean Turnell".

It's not clear how much access or purchase Australia's new representative will have within the political system in Myanmar, given the decision to effectively downgrade diplomatic ties.

Other countries trying to navigate the process of replacing their top diplomatic representatives have been ensnared in complex disputes over protocol and procedure.

For example, the United Kingdom's new ambassador has been locked out of Myanmar after declining to present their credentials to the regime.

But Mr Robertson said Australia's diplomatic engagement with the junta had so far been "very predictable", prizing access above actual results.

A DFAT spokesperson said it would appoint a "senior career officer with ambassadorial experience in the region" as the chargĂ© d'affaires to Myanmar.

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Sixty Rohingyas arrested in forest in Ayeyarwady Region’s Pathein Township

Source Mizzima, 11 April

About 60 Rohingya were arrested, for illegally leaving Rakhine State, in a forest, in Ayeyarwady Region's Pathein Township on 7 April, according to a police officer from the Pathein Township police station.

According to him, they were apprehended in a forest near to U To Village in Chaungtha Town. There were 34 men, 17 women, and 9 underage children in the group who had come from Rakhine State with the help of people smugglers.

"They [Rohingyas] coming from Rakhine State had to pay 1.5 million Kyat to the smugglers to go to Yangon. We were informed that the two traffickers live in Rathedaung and ArkarThaung villages. It is not yet known about where the Rohingya lived and came from", he added.

A human rights activist, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that he thinks the Rohingya must have paid money to junta troops to be able to travel through Rakhine State and Ayeyarwady Region.

Police officer Htun Shw from Ayeyarwady Region told Mizzima that the captured Rohingya are in the process of being charged, but he did not reveal where they are being held.

Under the 1982 Citizenship law, the Rohingya are not considered to be one of the indigenous races of Myanmar so they are not entitled to full citizenship. This means that there are severe restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement, marriages, births and population control restrictions. These restrictions limit Rohingya access to health, education, livelihoods and family life.

Jacqui Lambie says she made secret deal with PM to get refugees to NZ

Source SMH, 24 Mar

Australia's deal to send refugees to New Zealand was part of a private commitment independent senator Jacqui Lambie says she secured from Prime Minister Scott Morrison in return for her vote to end the medevac legislation for asylum seekers on Nauru.

The three-year agreement will lead to 450 refugees who attempted to arrive by boat resettling in NZ. Priority will be given to about 100 people still on Nauru after being processed in Australia's offshore immigration centre there. NZ's offer had been repeatedly rebuffed by the Australian government since it was first made in 2013.

Senator Jacqui Lambie during debate on the medevac laws in the Senate in December 2019.

Senator Jacqui Lambie during debate on the medevac laws in the Senate in December 2019.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

Senator Lambie said she had negotiated with Mr Morrison to accept the offer to resettle refugees in offshore detention as part of her agreement in December 2019 to reverse the "medevac" legislation, which was originally passed without the government's support. The laws allowed refugees and asylum seekers in the offshore camps on PNG and Nauru to be brought to Australia for urgent medical care with the sign-off from two doctors, instead of having to go through a lengthy court process to have the transfer ordered.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews and NZ's Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi made the refugee resettlement announcement, which will see NZ accept 150 refugees each year for three years, on Thursday afternoon, more than two years after Senator Lambie says she made the deal with the Prime Minister.

"I was told that talking about the deal would kill the deal. If I talked, they would suffer. I just couldn't do it to them," Senator Lambie tweeted on Thursday.

She told the Prime Minister has a document in his office confirming there was a deal, and that it was made clear to her that she would end up in jail if she spoke about it.

"It wasn't the prison threat keeping me quiet. It was the fact that the deal would be torn up if I said anything. I got close anyway, let me tell you. But in the end I just knew if I was one of them and knew what was at stake, I'd want Lambie to hold the line," she tweeted.

A spokesman for Mr Morrison said the government would not confirm or deny if any deals were done with senators, but said Senator Lambie was briefed on the national security implications of the deal and legislation. He said there are strong rules around who can reveal the content of national security briefings.

Friday, 1 April 2022

Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya warrant UN intervention

Source TheGuardian, 25 March

When individual states fail to protect their own populations, the international community must be prepared to act, writes Chris Hughes

Children of Rohingya refugees play football at a camp in Ukhia.
Rohingya refugees at a camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh. The US has declared that Myanmar's mass killing of Rohingya Muslims amounts to genocide. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty
Fri 25 Mar 2022 04.54 AEDT

Now that the US has finally accepted that Myanmar's ethnic cleansing and mass murder of Rohingya Muslims amounts to genocide (Rohingya refugees welcome US decision to call Myanmar atrocities a genocide, 22 March), the UN should enact its responsibility to prevent and respond to this most serious violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.

A 2005 UN world summit meeting agreed that all countries had a shared responsibility to do this. The summit agreed that the principle of state sovereignty carried with it the obligation of the state to protect its own citizens. However, if a state was unable or unwilling to do so, the international community was empowered to intervene.

The summit outcome document said "we are prepared to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity". No doubt Russia and China would veto any such move, but it should be proposed.
Chris Hughes

Myanmar junta leaders may face war crimes probe in Australia

Source TheAge, 22 March

Singapore: Leaders of Myanmar's military junta could be investigated in Australia for alleged war crimes committed by security forces since they seized power in a coup last year.

Cases against several military figures, from field commanders to junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, are being prepared by Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow administration of officials elected before the coup. They would be pursued in Australia under universal jurisdiction.

In this photo provided by the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, smokes and flames billow from vehicles in Hpruso township, Kayah state, in which people were shot and burnt on December 24.

In this photo provided by the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, smokes and flames billow from vehicles in Hpruso township, Kayah state, in which people were shot and burnt on December 24.CREDIT:AP

The move allows for individuals suspected of committing crimes against humanity, genocide, torture and other war atrocities to be tried under Australian law even if the alleged acts did not take place on Australian soil.

Dr Tun-Aung Shwe, the NUG representative in Australia, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he had engaged the pro bono division of law firm Gilbert + Tobin to bring the cases before Attorney-General Michaela Cash or her successor if Labor wins government at the upcoming federal election.

Such prosecutions need the approval of the top law officer in the country to proceed but Shwe argues the evidence of atrocities is too compelling to ignore.

He said the cases against officials in the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, would revolve around mass killings in Kayah state in eastern Myanmar and the Sagaing region, in the north-west, as well as clearance operations in western Chin state in which civilians were targeted and villages burnt to the ground.

Junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.CREDIT:AP

Among them is last year's horrific Christmas Eve massacre in Kayah's Hpruso township in which at least 35 people were shot and incinerated in their cars. The victims included two staff members from the humanitarian organisation Save the Children.

According to Shwe, the cases are being made against field commanders in the regions where the atrocities took place as well as those deemed to have overall responsibility for the military's conduct, principally Min Aung Hlaing.

Danny Gilbert, the managing partner at Gilbert + Tobin, said: "We have been asked by some prominent Burmese Australians to investigate the possibility of bringing war crime charges against members of the Myanmar military junta.

"A national government needs to commence such a claim so our role would be preparing a brief to try to persuade the federal AG to act."

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said, if elected, Labor would "carefully consider any proposals to help bring to justice military figures in Myanmar guilty of war crimes".

Cash's office was contacted for comment.

There are international precedents under the premise of universal justice including European nations investigating war crimes in Syria, Iraq and now by Russian forces in Ukraine. A court in Argentina also last year approved an investigation into atrocities perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya ethnic minority in 2017 that were this week determined by US President Joe Biden's administration to have amounted to genocide.

In Australia, the investigating agency would be the Australian Federal Police.

Aung San Suu Kyi with Min Aung Hlaing, right, before the coup. She has been detained since February 2021 on 17 charges brought against her by the junta that could see her sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.

Aung San Suu Kyi with Min Aung Hlaing, right, before the coup. She has been detained since February 2021 on 17 charges brought against her by the junta that could see her sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.CREDIT:AP

Rawan Arraf, a lawyer and executive director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, has urged Australia to take on universal jurisdiction cases and for the AFP to establish a permanent war crimes investigation unit, not least because the veto power of states on the United Nations Security Council dilutes the reach of the International Criminal Court.

"Australia should step in and ensure that perpetrators do not enjoy impunity," she said.

There have been several applications in Australia in the past decade, most notably in 2018 when a group of Australian lawyers tried to have Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi prosecuted over the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, and in 2011 when a case was brought against Sri Lanka's then president, now Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for its military's killing of as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians during the civil war. Both were dismissed because they had immunity under international law as heads of state or heads of government.

The newly formed Australian Office of the Special Investigator is delving into allegations of war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan but Arraf believes "the will of the police to undertake investigation of international crimes, particularly where there is no real Australian link, has not been there".

Labor and non-government organisations have called on Australia to follow the US, United Kingdom, European Union and others by imposing targeted sanctions on Myanmar's military junta, which calls itself the State Administration Council. But Foreign Minister Marise Payne has indicated sanctioning the regime is not in Australia's national interest.

The government has been unsuccessful in securing the release of Australian economist Sean Turnell, an advisor to Suu Kyi who has been detained in Yangon and Naypyidaw since February 2021. He is facing charges brought by the junta of violating state secrets.

The UN last week released a report cataloguing the Myanmar military's deliberate targeting of citizens, including with air strikes on heavily populated areas, declaring "the appalling breadth and scale of violations" could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Attempts to contact Myanmar SAC spokesman Zaw Min Tun were unsuccessful.

Friday, 11 February 2022

Myanmar: while the world sits on its hands, people fight military junta with violence and silence

Source TheConversation, 1 Feb

A year after a military coup, Myanmar remains mired in conflict. The country's military, the Tatmadaw, has failed to convince most of Myanmar's 55 million people of the legitimacy of its rule. Anti-coup resistance continues to be widespread nationwide.

The anniversary will be marked within Myanmar by a "silent strike", with participants acknowledging those jailed or killed by the junta during the last year by avoiding public space, leaving Myanmar's streets empty. The junta has threatened participants with decades-long jail sentences and property confiscations. But if previous calls for anti-coup resistance are an indication, tens of millions of people will stay home and Myanmar's streets will be spookily empty.

Silent strikers have a lot of people to acknowledge. The junta has jailed 11,838 according to Myanmar's Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. This included State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and as many of Myanmar's civilian politicians as the military could round up and have killed – 1,503 – often with appalling cruelty.

In the immediate wake of the coup, hundreds of mostly young, peaceful protesters were killed by army snipers. In ethnic minority areas, soldiers replicated the kinds of scorched earth tactics used when the Tatmadaw genocidally deported the Rohingya in 2017.

Group of Burmese men carry injured man while shouting.
A crackdown after the coup killed hundreds of protestors. EPA

Recent indiscriminate atrocities include the driving of a truck into a crowd of peaceful protesters, the burning alive of 11 people including four children in retaliation for an attack by anti-junta militia, and the massacre of 31 people fleeing violent clashes.

Rather than quelling popular opposition to military rule, the junta's brutality and extreme violence has instead convinced many people of the necessity of removing the military from power for good. Resistance has encompassed a broad range of activities including peaceful protests that drew global attention, and civil disobedience and strikes that have paralysed the bureaucracy and transport sectors. Increasingly this has included violent opposition to the junta.

Resistance is strongly encouraged by the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government in exile that draws heavily from politicians elected at the 2020 general election. In September, NUG leaders announced a "defensive war" against the junta, encouraging the creation of People's Defence Force militias to target the Tatmadaw and its assets.

These militias have increasingly linked with the armed wings of Myanmar's ethnic minority groups, of which there are dozens, many of whom have themselves been in conflict with the Tatmadaw for decades. A nationwide united front of militias and ethnic armed groups has the potential to significantly stretch Tatmadaw capabilities.

Economic shambles

Creating a further challenge for the junta is the shambolic state of the economy. The World Bank estimated an 18% contraction during 2021 and predicted a paltry 1% growth in 2022, describing the economy as "critically weak". The national currency, the kyat, has fallen to historic lows, losing 60% of its value in September alone.

The World Food Program estimated a 29% rise among a basket of basic foods, and a 71% hike in fuel prices during 2021, contributing to widespread food insecurity and pushing millions towards poverty.

The perilous state of the economy has revived memories of the shockingly poor economic management during previous periods of military rule which saw Myanmar (then Burma), in 1987, designated a "Least Developed Country" by the UN.

Mixed diplomatic messages

Internationally, the news for the junta is mixed. Military-ruled Myanmar is isolated diplomatically, the military government has been barred from participation in meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and Myanmar's delegate to the UN General Assembly speaks on behalf of the NUG, rather than the junta. But the generals have not had to face foreign intervention, an arms embargo, or even a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Western political leaders have been strong on anti-coup rhetoric and have imposed a range of economic sanctions, but there has been a studied reluctance to go beyond that. Most have been comfortable with Asean taking responsibility for addressing the situation in Myanmar. But the consensus-based regional bloc has proven unable to take decisive action, and its "five-point consensus" has been variously frustrated and ignored by the junta.

At the security council, neither the US, UK, nor France, all permanent members who have condemned the coup, has been prepared to force a vote on imposing an arms embargo or referring Myanmar's generals to the ICC. This might at least encourage Myanmar's defenders at the UN and its major arms suppliers – China and Russia - to push the junta to moderate its actions.

This situation is reminiscent of the west's response to the 2017 Rohingya crisis, when soaring rhetoric was not matched with actions to prevent criminality or achieve accountability. This arguably contributed to the Tatmadaw's sense of impunity which underpinned its decision to launch the current coup, convinced that it might face condemnatory rhetoric but little else from the UN or western governments.

Group of protestors making three-fingered salutes and holiding picture of Aung San Su Kyi with the word 'free'
Civilian leader Aung San Su Kyi has been sentenced to six years in prison. EPA

Edge of collapse

Military boss Min Aung Hlaing now presides over a crisis-riven country at the edge of complete political and economic collapse. While the junta has unquestionably failed to win hearts and minds and appears to have wildly underestimated the likely domestic opposition to renewed military rule, there are few indications the junta is considering any compromise that might see the Tatmadaw return to its barracks.

Meanwhile, held incommunicado for a year, Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of the 2020 general election, has been recently sentenced to six years in jail via an absurd, military-run court process.

All this suggests Myanmar faces a worrying future: a military determined to rule and prepared to use appalling violence to achieve power, and a population equally determined to remove the military from power.

A protracted conflict will have devastating consequences for Myanmar's people. By imposing an arms embargo on the Tatmadaw, the security council could help to defeat the junta more quickly. In the silent strike, millions of people will bravely risk decades in jail to protest military rule that is as illegitimate as it is cruel. They will be hoping the security council can show some bravery too.