Wong challenged to support a humanitarian intervention in Myanmar

Jul 26, 2022
Penny Wong - DFAT official photo

A critical meeting occurs this week with representatives of the Myanmar diaspora, human rights officials, DFAT staff and the Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s office which is expected to deliver a new policy approach from Australia on Myanmar.

Chris Sidoti, a former Australian Human Rights Commissioner, who played an important role in the formation of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions and on UN human rights councils, and a member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, is expected to attend.

Aid agencies and activists are hoping the Government will strengthen sanctions against individuals of the military junta and associated business enterprises which help fund the military.

They are looking for Penny Wong to signal a more substantial response to the humanitarian and development crisis which is unfolding in the country of 54 million mainly Buddhist people..

As John Menadue writes in Pearls Weekly edition this week, Wong has been “subtle and tough minded” and shown she will deliver nuance to policy making.

She will need all of that and more to align Australia’s policies with a divided Asia, if she is to act urgently to help the millions of people facing humanitarian catastrophe while safeguarding the health of one Australian in a Myanmar jail.

The ruthless decision by the international community to virtually ignore Myanmar has resulted in thousands of deaths of civilians, military and opposition militia. This week the normally reliable source Myanmar Now reported that 12 bodies were found in a burned out village in Sagaing region, after the military hit the town with gunships and ground troops. “Most of them were burned beyond recognition. Their hands and feet were bound by wire,” a witness told the news agency.

The UN estimates there are 14 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, but delivery has stalled.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has assisted more than two million people in Myanmar during the first quarter of 2022, with plans to assist at least four million by the end of the year.

However the latest WFP situation report https://www.wfp.org/publications/situation-report-myanmar shows by far the biggest distribution of aid has been in metropolitan areas including the business capital Yangon as well as the Rakhine region which has been receiving food aid for many years anyway.

The aid supports almost 1.6 million people in Yangon and 346,000 in Rakhine.

The Myanmar Economic Monitor July-MEM-2022-Final.pdf (worldbank.org) predicts that around 40pc of the population is now living below the poverty line.

Many areas which are not receiving food and humanitarian aid are under control of the Ethnic Resistance Organisations (EROs), the Peoples Defence Forces (PDF) and the National Unity Government, (NUG) but delivery of aid so far has remained the responsibility of the WFP, which does not appear to be effectively reaching the communities being attacked relentlessly by the army.

ASEAN has also promised to assist with aid distribution through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management – known as ASEAN AHA – but ASEAN hasn’t severed ties with the military junta and there are concerns its aid, including $5m from Australia last year, assists the military to retain power.

Aid agencies and The Border Consortium have called on the Government to coordinate with local NGOs to ensure delivery of aid.

While humanitarian need is urgent it’s also important to recognise longer term development needs, addressing the deeper vulnerabilities the people face. Support for the media, freedom of expression, democracy and peace building, education, and health care remains important and could be addressed by Australia.

Since the May 21 Federal election members of the Myanmar community in Australia have become more hopeful that a reset of the approach will mirror the statements Wong made in opposition, to tighten sanctions and find better delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The spokesperson in Australia for the alternative “National Unity Government”, Australian Dr Tun Aung Schwe, who works at the University of NSW, “strongly believes” the ALP will impose more targeted sanctions and change its approach to the delivery of humanitarian aid.

“Based on the election commitment of the ALP, I believe the new Government will release new policy on sanctions, humanitarian assistance, how it will work with ASEAN, and the NUG,” Dr Tun says.

“I know they accept the ASEAN five point consensus doesn’t work.”

“They have asked what NUG can do to assist with humanitarian assistance and I provided the NUG’s proposal to complement the ASEAN AHA-led humanitarian assistance program in Myanmar.”

The UN and ASEAN remain at a stalemate with the Junta and after 18 months have not been able to access areas in critical need. “The Junta focus is on metropolitan areas. Most of the rural areas are under control of PDF and NUG especially in Sagaing, Magway and East Bago regions, Kachin, Chin, Karenni and Kayin states.”

Dr Tun says there is urgent need for humanitarian corridors to be opened in a couple of critical areas.

“Do not forget it is the military junta which is responsible for the humanitarian crisis.

“Aid can be delivered effectively in areas controlled by Ethnic Resistance Organisations and the NUG, but this would require Australia to change its approach, which so far is mainly focussing on multilateral approach delivered aid by UN agencies and ASEAN.

“We have been told that the Australian government will work through the ASEAN humanitarian process, and they will ensure taxpayer money and humanitarian support will go to beneficiaries.

“But in reality the Australian Government contributed $5m last year to ASEAN for food relief but then ASEAN worked with the military junta on distribution.

“I have great concerns and find it doubtful that Australian taxpayer money will be well spent by the Junta,” Tun said.

Dr Tun believes the Australian government should favour NGOs and INGOs who are working in remote locations or in border areas.

He hopes India and Thailand can be brought into negotiations to allow this to occur.

“I am calling on the UN and ASEAN to negotiate with the NUG and the Military junta for a humanitarian force.”

Aid agencies, activists and development specialists in the region are growing impatient with what they perceive as the failure of the UN agencies, ASEAN and international governments to intervene in the crisis brought about by the Military which stole power from the legally elected National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.

The issue of greater targeted sanctions by Australia has been beset by difficulties surrounding the detention of Australian Sean Turnell, an adviser to Suu Kyi, who languishes in a Myanmar prison, at the mercy of a corrupted court process.

Dr Tun says increased targeted sanctions would include focussing on more of the members of the Military Junta; a tighter arms embargo and stopping jet fuel being delivered for use by the military.

“This would help reduce bombing of villages,” Dr Tun says.

“The International community and Aust governments need to collaborate more with NUG and EROs.

“While the whole world is focussing on Ukraine it’s easy for them to say that Myanmar is an internal domestic affair.

“It is not domestic, because a failed state in Myanmar would be like Syria, affecting all neighbouring countries in the region and beyond.

“I do believe the ALP has a long term good relationship with Aung San Suu Khi’s National League for Democracy. When they were in opposition the ALP and Greens stood together strongly with Myanmar cause.

“So I do believe this government can make some differences.”

The meeting is in Canberra on Thursday.

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