Myanmar on the brink – the Australian Government should lower its vision

Jun 4, 2022
A stylised map showing Myanmar in the Asian region
A fresh approach to tackle the crisis in Myanmar is needed, urgently. Australia could play a role. Image: iStock

The crisis in Myanmar may rapidly worsen with the military rulers this week rationing fuel to about 15% of normal supplies. The announcement comes after months of denials that civil war, sanctions and loss of foreign currency are impacting basic necessities.

Military rule in Myanmar entered its second year on February 1, 2022. With currency restrictions, local food production is critical to stave off hunger, but last year it plummeted and it is feared it faces a near complete draw down of food and fertiliser stocks.

Despite regular UN humanitarian reports showing a substantial escalation in violence, and food shortages, throughout the country, Myanmar has been, as one observer told me this week: “left to fail.”

The food and fuel crisis puts the country only one step away from catastrophic implosion, which would lead to massive loss of life, jobs, and a refugee exodus. Last week a tragedy we are all too familiar with – a boat carrying refugees capsized and at least 30 people drowned – we must not “look away” as photographer Steve Dupont puts it. Unfortunately, Thailand is cracking down on the border and not surprisingly, given the borders are closing elsewhere, there are now quite a few refugees from Chin State crossing into India.

It could also be a test for Australia’s new foreign affairs Minister, Penny Wong, to rebuild regional alliances – and to act effectively in the face of the massive humanitarian crisis mounting in the largest country of mainland South East Asia.

Crisis is also an opportunity – a chance to find new ways to re-engage with ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member. Ever since the military coup last year, ASEAN has tried to tackle Myanmar’s conflict – so far unsuccessfully – and Australia could be well served to explore actively how best to render these efforts more successful.

The Morrison government would appear to have acted slowly and with great caution, with many suggesting it did so for fear of taking steps which could jeopardise the fate of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s economic advisor Prof Sean Turnell, who continues to be detained since shortly after the coup in February 2021.  He has been charged with violating Myanmar’s official secrets act, facing a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison if found guilty.

Prior to Australia’s federal election on May 21, Labor’s acting foreign affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, intensified pressure on the Morrison Government to take its response further, and target key figures in Myanmar’s military.

“It is beyond time for the Morrison-Joyce Government to implement targeted sanctions against those responsible for the coup and the subsequent violent crackdown,” Keneally said.

She described the coup as: “…a direct attack on Myanmar’s democratic transition.” Another “attack on democracy”, in Ukraine, has put into stark relief how the world may be failing Myanmar – both when it was in its nascent democratic state and especially after the military takeover.

While western countries pour billions of dollars into arms and humanitarian relief in Ukraine, Myanmar’s long-suffering populations are receiving very little from anywhere.

The mutli-lateral humanitarian and development system of the UN and INGOs is operating under near impossible conditions to deliver much needed assistance, as Myanmar’s political conflict is unresolved, with the military continuing to attempt to ‘settle’ this conflict essentially with military means alone.

Ever since last year’s coup, the United Nations has not recognized the military regime as the legitimate government of the country. Neither has the UN recognised the exiled national unity government, set up by ethnic representatives and members of parliament elected in the November 2020 poll, won by the democratic forces and nullified by the military after the coup.

The UN special envoys for Myanmar, last year as well as this year, appear not to have made headway.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that there are over 1.2 million “persons of concern“ in Myanmar. This figure includes 810,000 internally displaced persons and 600,000 stateless Rohingya, of which 148,000 remain displaced. WFP, UNDP and the World Bank have all warned of the impact on poverty of last year’s massive economic contraction and the rise in poverty, reversing previous gains.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) which compiles figures from news reports and publications by human rights organisations, says about 12,000 civilians may have died.

To make matters worse, numerous attacks on health care have taken place. Some of these are documented in the World Health Organisation’s global Surveillance System for Attacks on Healthcare (SSA).

Furthermore, the UK Government and its partners produce Reporting the Impact of Attacks on Healthcare” from the University of Manchester’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, supported by USAID and the European Commission’s “Ending Violence against Healthcare in Conflict” initiative.

These reports or initiatives enable a quick comparison to be made of the impact of some globally observed conflicts.

The WHO surveillance system for attacks on healthcare, for example, shows that during Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, there have been 263 attacks on health care facilities for the period since the invasion started (24 February 2022). These attacks reportedly resulted in the deaths of 13 patients and 29 health care workers.

In Myanmar, the UK report shows that since the coup, there have been 492 attacks on health care facilities, including 129 hospitals or clinics, and 153 attacks on health care workers. There have been more than 500 reported arrests or rearrests of health care workers, including doctors, nurses, administrators.

And yet it is Ukraine to which the Morrison Government has provided massive military and humanitarian aid.

Clearly, this highlights the immediate need for such attacks on health care to stop under any circumstances – whether in Myanmar or in Ukraine or anywhere else. This is something which countries are already committed to in international forums and conventions.

Taken together, the picture seems clear in that a fresh approach to tackle the crisis in Myanmar is needed, urgently.

A fresh approach ranging from increased humanitarian assistance alleviating human suffering, possibly with a new focus on health care, to political assistance to help resolve the severe, underlying political conflict. Australia could play an important role in both.

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