Penny Wong urged to sanction military junta in open letter highlighting crimes in Myanmar

June 29th, 2022  •  Author:   ABC News  •  6 minute read
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Erin Handley

Hundreds of NGOs are calling on Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong to take stronger action against Myanmar’s military junta by imposing targeted sanctions, among a suite of other measures.

Key points:

  • Before the election, Penny Wong called on the government to impose targeted sanctions
  • More than 2,000 people have been killed and 1 million are displaced
  • Critics say the junta is using high-level diplomatic engagement to legitimise its rule

The junta overthrew the elected government in a coup in February last year, detaining de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and senior members of the government, as well as Australian economist Sean Turnell.

Since the takeover, Australia has ended its military cooperation with the army — also called the Tatmadaw — but has not imposed any fresh sanctions against coup leaders, despite allies including the US, UK and Canada doing so.

The open letter, penned by almost 300 groups, called on Senator Wong to stand by comments she made before the election by imposing targeted sanctions against the junta and those responsible for grave human rights violations.

A month after the coup, Senator Wong said deadly crackdowns on protesters were “deeply distressing”.

“Australia cannot be a bystander to a direct attack on Myanmar’s democracy,” she said at the time.

James Thangman, secretary at the Ethnic Myanmar Communities’ Council of Australia — a signatory to the letter — said many in Australia were suffering the psychological impacts of watching friends and relatives fleeing their homes or resisting the military’s rule.

“We have a lot of sleepless nights … we are very worried about our relatives and our loved ones,” he said.

He said under the previous Australian government, Myanmar communities received “lots of lip service”, but there was “no profound or substantial support”.

James Thangman says many are having sleepless nights and want Australia to take stronger action against the junta.(Supplied)

“In Burma, people are fighting for their life, people are fighting to restore the democracy, people are fighting for human rights,” he said, referring to the former official name for Myanmar that is still commonly used.

He said the “brutality” of the junta needed to be condemned.

“They kill people … people are burning alive. Villages are burning down.”

A DFAT spokesperson said the government was “reviewing Australia’s policy settings on Myanmar”.

“Consistent with the approach we take on all sanctions regimes, it would not be appropriate to discuss whether specific persons or entities are under consideration for sanctions,” they said.

“Australia remains deeply concerned by the ongoing detention and trial of Professor Sean Turnell.”

Since the coup, more than 3,300 Myanmar citizens have lodged offshore applications to seek asylum in Australia, and 460 have arrived here on humanitarian or refugee visas.

Some observers have suggested the ongoing detention and trial of Professor Turnell may have factored into Australia’s reluctance to sanction the junta.

Australian Sean Turnell, pictured with his wife Ha Vu, remains in custody. (ABC News: Supplied)

But Mr Thangman said the military “will never change” and was becoming increasingly brutal in its crackdown — including signalling it would execute two prominent pro-democracy activists.

“My suggestion to the Australian government and the world community is, please do not try to convince the lion to eat the grass — it will never happen.”

Diplomatic engagement emboldening junta

More than 2,000 people have been killed by the junta and more than 14,000 arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

The letter said there have been more than 10,000 armed clashes, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians through air strikes and shelling.

More than 1 million people have been displaced and villages have been torched.

A drone image shows a town in Sagaing region after villagers say it was set ablaze by the Myanmar military.(Reuters)

More than 5,000 homes in Sagaing region, where there has been armed resistance to the junta, have been razed between February and April this year alone, according to the letter.

The military has said it is trying to restore order and has declared the shadow government is a terrorist group. It has said it took power due to unproven claims of election fraud in the November 2020 poll.

The open letter urged Senator Wong to reject the junta-appointed ambassador and recognise the alternative civilian government in exile, the National Unity Government (NUG).

It also criticised the diplomatic peak body the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for its failures to resolve the crisis.

The letter argues ASEAN is “complicit in the junta’s terror campaign” by continuing to engage with Myanmar defence officials.

Aung San Suu Kyi is being held and tried in a specially-constructed prison compound.(AP: Aung Shine Oo/File)

“Australia recognises states not governments,” the DFAT spokesperson told the ABC, adding that officials engage with the NUG when opportunities arise.

Australia’s former defence minister Peter Dutton attended some ASEAN counter-terrorism meetings virtually where a Myanmar military representative was in attendance.

The previous government has said it was important to engage with the region on counter-terror and it hadn’t missed a meeting in 11 years, but critics said Australia’s presence helped to legitimise the junta.

The Australian reported last week that Australia will skip the next ASEAN counter-terrorism meeting, which is to be held in Moscow and will be co-chaired by Myanmar next month.

The letter also called on Australian aid to be delivered via trusted cross-border community groups, rather than the ASEAN’s Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA).

The head of Myanmar’s Ministry of Social Welfare, which is now under the junta, has a seat on the AHA Centre board. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade last year told the ABC that Australia and AHA Centre would work together to ensure $5 million in aid would not be channelled through the regime.

The letter also urged Senator Wong to “take action to prevent Australian mining companies from continuing to explore and extract minerals, which are a source of revenue for the junta, and threaten ethnic communities and the environment” and to “put an advisory in place for Australian businesses and investors to avoid any business with the Myanmar military junta and its cronies”.

It also urged her to ensure the Future Fund — Australia’s sovereign wealth fund — divests from companies with links to the Tatmadaw.

“Australia’s Future Fund has maintained investments in businesses that provide arms and revenue to the Myanmar military junta, profiting from Myanmar’s destruction,” the letter said.

In November last year, documents released under Freedom of Information laws showed the Future Fund held almost $158 million in 14 companies with ties to the military.

In February, it was revealed the Future Fund was forced to divest $5 million from a Chinese weapons company whose subsidiary sold aircraft and missiles to the Myanmar military, due to US sanctions against the conglomerate.

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