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.

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