Money talks: What Australia can do about Myanmar’s crazy generals

Mar 5, 2021

A month has passed since the Myanmar generals’ coup. People in Myanmar have responded with outrage. Many countries reacted strongly and quickly. Even the notoriously deadlocked UN Security Council managed to find consensus to issue a statement. Our response has been tepid. It’s time to get off the fence. 

A full month has passed since Myanmar’s generals staged their latest coup. The move, for me, was as unexpected as it was stupid. These generals and their predecessors over the past half century have been noted for their stupidity. After all, who else could rule a country absolutely for 50 years and change it from one of the richest countries in Asia to one of the poorest in the world? But this coup really takes the cake. I mean, why on earth would they bother?

Under the 2008 constitution they imposed on the country, the generals had complete autonomy. They had a quarter of the seats in all houses of all parliaments, national and regional. They had full control over the three key security ministries, Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs, as well as one of the two vice presidents. They had a majority in the national security council. They had their own autonomous justice system so that military personnel had complete immunity from prosecution, unless the generals wanted to mount a show trial of very junior soldiers. And they had a veto over any constitutional change so that this system was set in concrete.

In addition, from 2015, they had the benefit of the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi running international protection for them, defending them from international criticism and before international forums, including the International Court of Justice. And, as a result of the ‘democratic transition’, Myanmar was richer than it was a decade ago and the generals were benefitting nicely.

Why would they bother with a coup when they’ve never had it so good? Some things are beyond rational understanding. The more pressing question is what, if anything, Australia can do in response. Responding to irrational action is difficult but the very irrationality can make a broad range of responses effective, including action we’d think of as largely symbolic. Then again, economic responses are critical because money is clearly a major motivator for these generals.

Australia’s response to the coup has been among the milder of responses from Western states. While others have issued strongly worded statements and imposed economic embargoes and other sanctions against individual generals, Australian statements have been measured (that is, very mild) and we have not yet taken a single concrete step since the coup, not even suspending military to military cooperation. Perhaps the detention of Australian academic Sean Turnell has deterred the Government from taking action. If so, understandable but ineffective: Turnell has not been released.

Simply put, it’s well past time for Australia to get off the fence and take some significant action, even if largely at the symbolic level. So, to begin with …

  1. Suspend Australia-Myanmar military cooperation: the program is very small, only worth a few hundred thousand dollars a year, but the generals have loved the legitimacy and acceptance it has given them and the travel opportunities.
  2. Impose sanctions on all members of the State Administrative Council (the junta’s ruling body): only a few of them have been sanctioned to date, not including the Commander-in-Chief and his deputy.
  3. Announce that it will take active steps to encourage Australian companies and companies operating in Australia not to enter or continue business arrangements with Myanmar military owned or controlled enterprises and with Myanmar state owned enterprises: Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited are the two largest military owned conglomerates, with scores of identified subsidiaries. Start with all of them. In addition, state owned enterprises, including the Ministry of Gas and Energy, are now effectively under military control and so should be included in boycotts.
  4. Announce that it will treat the arrest of Sean Turnell as ‘hostage diplomacy’ and seek the support of international partners in the anti-hostage diplomacy campaign to secure his release: the Australian Government says it will not be blackmailed through hostage diplomacy. It needs to act on that.
  5. Join Canada and the Netherlands in supporting Gambia’s action in the International Court of Justice: Myanmar is defending a case of genocide based on its persecution of the Rohingya. Gambia brought the case and Canada and the Netherlands have joined it to support Gambia. Australia should too.
  6. Join initiatives (collaborative action, statements, meetings and the like) of like-minded states (Canada, EU, New Zealand, UK, US) in international forums, in Myanmar itself and elsewhere: Australia has been noticeably absent from a number of initiatives and statements of like-minded states. This is embarrassing to us and offers a little comfort to the generals.
  7. Pressure ASEAN to take firm action to (1) restrain the military to prevent a massacre, (2) convene a meeting of all the principal actors and (3) seek a resolution of the situation: there are now a number of significant actors in Myanmar, not only the military and not only the NLD but also several new bodies and coalitions, including the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the national parliament), the ethnic organisations’ negotiating committee, the Civil Disobedience Movement and the General Strike Committee. Australia should be encouraging ASEAN to talk with them all to explore ways forward.
  8. Work with the US, as President of the Security Council in March 2021, to take an initiative during its presidency to activate the Security Council to seek a resolution of the situation in Myanmar, with all options for international action on the table except military intervention.

That’s a start. It’s not right to throw our hands in the air and say there’s nothing we can do. There are opportunities to contribute, not alone but with many others, to putting as much pressure as possible on the generals. That’s the key to responding to the coup.

Chris Sidoti was an Expert Member of the UN’s Independent International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar from 2017 to 2019. He has now joined two other former UN Experts in establishing the new Special Advisory Council for Myanmar. 

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