Nearly 700 organisations have written to Penny Wong about Myanmar. Here’s why

June 29th, 2022  •  Author:   SBS News  •  4 minute read
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Nearly 700 organisations from Australia and around the world have penned a letter to foreign affairs minister Penny Wong, urging her to take action on the crisis in Myanmar.

The open letter has called on Senator Wong in her new position in parliament to denounce the “illegitimate military junta” they say is threatening democratic freedom in Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma.

The three-page letter from 688 civil society organisations describes the “struggle for a federal democratic Myanmar”.

The letter tasks Senator Wong with 15 challenges, including cracking down on any and all diplomatic ties with the Myanmar military, imposing tough actions against officials and urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to denounce the junta.

Spokesperson for one of the signatories, the Ethnic Myanmar Communities’ Council of Australia, James Thangman, said it was time Australia paid more than “lip service” to the people of Myanmar.

Ethnic Myanmar Communities’ Council of Australia, James Thangman, says the people of Myanmar deserve action from the federal government that is more than “lip service”. Source: Supplied / James Thangman

He believes the Australian government has “hesitated” to condemn the Myanmar military in order to maintain friendly diplomatic ties, despite being described as the “most brutal” in the world.

“Trying to make polite to the junta is like trying to convince the tiger to eat the grass,” Mr Thangman told SBS News.

If ASEAN decides to recognise the junta, the letter has asked the federal government to boycott the ten-state member union in support of Myanmar.

“I believe that if the Australian government believed in democracy and human rights and the brutality in Burma, then I think it is not hard to follow.”

It’s been more than a year since the military seized control of Myanmar in a coup that has been a devastating blow to the country, and has been internationally condemned by several countries and rights groups.

The military overthrew the newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) in February 2021 after claiming its victory in the 2020 general elections was founded on illegitimate votes.

According to the rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), as of June 2022, more than 2,000 people have been killed and more than 14,000 people arrested by the junta since it took control of the country.

“The way [the junta] treat people, the way they kill their own people, is beyond your imagination,” Mr Thangman said.

Myanmar’s former elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi was placed on trial last year for 20 different charges relating to corruption and incitement against the military. She now remains in solitary confinement and is facing life in prison.

Myanmar’s former leader Aung San Suu Kyi faces life in prison after being arrested by the military during a coup in 2021. Source: AP / AP / Wason Wanichakorn

Also imprisoned is Australian citizen Sean Turnell, Ms Suu Kyi’s former economic adviser, who was arrested by the military when it assumed power in 2021.

Earlier this month Senator Wong said the Australian government rejects a recent court ruling in Myanmar that heard there is sufficient evidence against Professor Turnell for his trial to proceed.

“We will continue to advocate for Professor Turnell’s interests and well-being and will not stop until he is safely back with his family,” Senator Wong said in a statement.

The letter described the previous Coalition government’s actions in denouncing Myanmar’s military as a “failure” and is hoping, under new prime minister Anthony Albanese, Australia can lead the way in pushing for democracy.

“The Morrison Government fell shamefully short to live up to Australia’s values of and commitment to democracy and human rights,” the letter read.

In May this year, the then-Liberal government was careful not to recognise the military as Myanmar’s formal government but stopped short of imposing sanctions against the state.

It also refused to appoint a new ambassador to Myanmar, opting instead to select a member from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as the head of mission with the title of chargé d’affaires.

While these actions were celebrated by advocates for Myanmar’s elected government like Mr Thangman, he said they were “better than nothing, but absolutely not enough”

The letter’s release comes as Senator Wong visits Malaysia, her home country and one of the key ASEAN nations that have spoken out against the Myanmar crisis, in a bid to “reset” relations with countries in the Southeast Asian region.

SBS News has contacted Senator Wong’s office and Myanmar’s Australian Embassy for comment and a response to the letter.

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