Why isn’t Australia doing more to sanction Myanmar’s military?

Some experts suggest Australia is being diplomatic with the junta so they can ‘have a bet each way’ in case the coup regime retains power

On June 21, the United States government declared a fresh batch of restrictions targeting the interests of the Myanmar military—its 17th round of sanctions against the junta and its affiliates since the country’s February 2021 coup. These restrictions, announced by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, targeted the Ministry of Defence and two of the nation’s largest regime-controlled banks, in a bid to prevent the junta from buying arms from foreign suppliers and in retaliation for what the US described as “atrocities” inflicted upon the Burmese people.

Blinken did not specify which atrocities, exactly, the military regime was being punished for, but he didn’t need to: over the past two-and-a-half years, the junta’s campaign of violence has left in its wake a long list of well-publicised human rights abuses and war crimes. More than 3,600 civilians have been killed by indiscriminate airstrikes, village raids, and the ransacking of schools and medical facilities. Tens of thousands of homes have been destroyed, nearly 1.5 million people have been displaced, and countless men, women, and children have been tortured, raped, mutilated, and murdered.

When the European Union announced its sixth round of sanctions in February, it was more explicit in its focus. Those in the crosshairs included high-ranking officers in the Myanmar armed forces, politicians who were involved in the execution of democracy activists, and others who oversaw air strikes, massacres, and the use of civilians as human shields. The EU’s statement also made it clear that such restrictive measures were in addition to the bloc’s freeze on “all EU assistance that may be seen as legitimising the junta,” a condemnation in “the strongest terms possible” of the regime’s conduct.

Yet while the US, EU, United Kingdom and Canada have been fierce in their condemnation and staunch in their response, Australia’s reaction to the junta’s ongoing and worsening atrocities has been relatively mild. To date, the nation’s only sanctions against the Myanmar military regime since the coup were those announced by Foreign Minister Penny Wong on February 1, 2023, exactly two years after the coup leaders overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government.

Sixteen members of the junta and two military-controlled economic entities were targeted in that batch of restrictions, adding to the five that were sanctioned in 2018 following the Rohingya genocide. Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Australian thinktank the Lowy Institute, described them as “the most basic possible measures.”

“Announcing a limited first round of sanctions is smart policy,” Patton wrote at the time. “It keeps powder dry so that Australia has a response in hand if, as seems inevitable, the Myanmar junta commits further abuses.”

Patton’s predictions were correct: in the four months since, the junta has committed a string of further abuses including, most recently, alleged summary executions of political prisoners. And yet Australia, despite many of these incidents prompting international outrage and further action from Western partners, has declined to put any more of its powder to the spark.

A house destroyed by Myanmar military aircraft in Moebye, southern Shan State, on September 8, 2022, photographed on September 15 (Kaung Zaw Hein / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Tasneem Roc, campaign manager at the Myanmar Campaign Network (MCN)—an Australian coalition of human rights organisations, international aid NGOs, Myanmar diaspora organisations, trade unions, and faith-based organisations that was formed in the wake of the coup—described Australia’s response as “very unsatisfactory.”

“To wait two years into a coup to issue sanctions… it’s very slow progress. It’s not in line with what our international democratic allies are doing,” she said. “I feel like in the last few years, there have been so many watershed moments and so many massacres that would have been opportunities to say ‘This is our moment for a hard line.’”

“What degree of massacre or depravity is it going to take?”

It’s difficult to know. While the Australian government has repeatedly denounced abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Myanmar military, they have often stopped short of actually imposing further restrictions, for reasons that remain unclear. While they repeatedly claim that their sanctions position is “under review,” the decision-making process is, in Roc’s words, “opaque.”

What the Australian government has publicly acknowledged is that it wants to align itself more with the positions taken by partner countries within the Asia-Pacific region and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, as opposed to those in the West. ASEAN, for its part, has prioritised behind-the-scenes dialogue with the junta over sanctions. But this, too, has drawn criticism from human rights groups, who have urged ASEAN member nations to do more: namely, step up and crack down with restrictions that would cut off the junta’s access to resources like foreign currency, arms, and aviation fuel.

“Myanmar’s military is committing atrocities while ASEAN countries and others just stand on the sidelines,” Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), wrote in December. “It’s not enough to condemn the junta and hope it will change its conduct or move toward democracy: stronger actions are needed.”

Manny Maung, HRW’s Myanmar researcher, suggested that by deferring to other ASEAN members to lead the way, Australia is open to the same criticisms.

“I think it would be fair to say that [the Australian government] have taken the lead from ASEAN rather than taking the lead themselves. And it’s disappointing, obviously, because we would really want Australia to play more of a leadership role in human rights in the region,” she told Myanmar Now. “Australia has really, in some ways, backslid in regards to being a key international player in advocating for human rights. We’re very quiet, and we were very slow to [act on] this.”

Others have pointed to alternative reasons why Australia might be taking a more diplomatic tack with the junta. Clancy Moore, chief executive officer of Transparency International, suggested that the government may not just be keeping their powder dry in case of further atrocities, but also in the event that the junta retains power over Myanmar.

“They are trying to have a bet each way in that they’re still trying to maintain some sort of engagement with the military,” said Moore. “My assumption is that there’s people within the [Australian] bureaucracy who want to keep their equities open and potentially have a seat at the table to try and influence the current military regime. Whereas other countries like the US, UK, our so-called AUKUS allies, have been very strong in condemning the military junta and have introduced far more sanctions… Australia’s not doing enough at all.”

The disconnection between Australia’s stance and that of the US, UK, EU, and Canada was thrown into stark relief on May 24, when the sanctions coordinators from each of those governments met to assess and align efforts related to sanctions on Myanmar. Australia did not attend.

When asked why they were not present at those discussions, ​​an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson did not provide a direct answer, instead telling Myanmar Now that “Australia holds regular discussions with partners, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and ASEAN members on our policy settings towards Myanmar. Australia, ASEAN and international partners have repeatedly called on the Myanmar regime to engage in constructive dialogue and find a peaceful and durable resolution to the ongoing crisis.”

“Australia will continue to keep our targeted sanctions toward Myanmar under review,” the spokesperson added.

Australian foreign minister Penny Wong speaks during the ASEAN Post Ministerial conference with Australia at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia on July 13 (EPA-EFE/AJENG DINAR ULFIANA)

Representatives of the Australian government have previously argued that the country’s ability to meaningfully influence the situation in Myanmar via sanctions is limited to nil. Transparency International’s Moore pointed out, however, that “sanctions as part of a targeted and coordinated foreign policy response work. They send a clear message and they also help cut off the financial flows to the Myanmar military.”

He suggested three things that the Australian government could do. First, they could follow the lead of the US and sanction the key banks that facilitate financial transactions for the military and their economic entities. They could sanction Myanmar’s highly lucrative natural resource sectors, which provide the junta with billions of dollars in revenue, and they could investigate whether Australian interests are engaging with the mining sector and enriching the Myanmar military.

Finally, Moore added, the Australian government and authorities could place greater attention on relatives of the junta and military generals who are living and studying in Australia, and who may be receiving illicit financial flows from the regime and distributing them into the nation’s economy.

These actions alone may not prevent atrocities from continuing into the future, but multiple experts and human rights advocates agree that even small measures would be a step in the right direction.

“If we really wanted to make an impact, I think we would take proactive measures and take active part in some of these sanctions measures that our other partners and other like-minded countries are doing right now,” said HRW’s Manny Maung. “When you think about the kids who are having to defend themselves with or without weapons against a military onslaught of air strikes and thermobaric weapons and ground attacks, it just feels like we’re not really putting our values at the front and centre of our response.”

“I mean, it’s been almost three years, and we’ve had very, very little diplomatic progress.”

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