Opinion and Commentary

Turning our backs on a regional nightmare

While the world focuses on Ukraine’s struggle against Russian invasion, Myanmar suffers a military government’s tyranny in our regional backyard, writes TGB Lawyers’ Senior Lawyer and Business Advisor, Morry Bailes in this Opinion piece for InDaily.

Turning our backs on a regional nightmare

It is surprising and disturbing that so few Australians fully understand and appreciate the plight of the Burmese people, whose totalitarian government has meted out terrible human rights abuses in order to quell a nascent democratic movement and return that country to the state of international pariah.

Whilst we are understandably focused on Europe, the war in Ukraine and recent events in Russia, too little attention has been paid to the terrible and daily breaches of international law and utter disregard for the rule of law now happening in Myanmar, a South East Asian country in our own region.

It seems as if the world’s warm embrace of Myanmar when it finally conducted genuine elections in November 2015 and again in 2020, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy won convincingly, has gone cold. After the initial condemnation of the 2021 coup d’état, which once again put the generals and military junta back in charge – this time with no veil of civility, only the iron fist of tyranny – we seem to have ignored Myanmar and its people.

The troubled history of Myanmar, or Burma as it was known, is a sad and sorry tale. Its people have suffered awfully. After the Second Burma War of 1852-3, Burma had the ignominy of becoming in effect a sub-colony of India. It wasn’t until 1948, following the Second World War, that it once again gained independence.

It was a cruel twist of fate that in the year before independence, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San was assassinated and thus never came to lead Burma. One wonders how different the remainder of its history would have been. When in 1962 a military coup resulted in the military taking control of government, Burma entered a dark tunnel from which it has never emerged. Whilst other totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union came and went, Myanmar, as it is now called, has suffered on and on.

But it is on the plight of Myanmar today that we must concentrate, and there are profoundly disturbing reports of regular human rights abuses, continued persecution of the Rohingya, and an almost total absence of the rule of law. Whilst condemned by Australia, it is insufficiently reported on and has suffered from a lack of action by UN member states, and ASEAN.

Relatively recently the United Nations released a special report on Myanmar which makes grim reading. Then High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet advised the UN Human Rights Council: ‘What we are witnessing today is the systematic and widespread use of tactics against civilians, in respect of which there are reasonable grounds to believe the commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes.’

Since the 2021 coup, which itself was a clear and inexcusable breach of international law, the U.N. reports that at least 1 million people in Myanmar have been displaced, at least 1900 people killed by the military, in many instances extra-judicially, and 14 million are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Its economy has been devastated.

Having travelled to Myanmar three times, there are two aspects with which I was struck. First the beauty of the land, and of its many temples and archaeological sites of importance, and second the abject poverty brought about by systemic government failure and an absence of the rule of law. Even then, the people were cruelly poor. What it must be like today one can barely imagine. Yet the beauty of the place and its people shone through.

From the remnants of British colonial buildings in Yangon, earlier known as Rangoon, to the more regional cities such as Mandalay accessed by an old, rattling and very slow train that travels through the rice fields and countryside, it has an almost spiritual quality. From the vast and breathtaking Shwedagon Pagoda, blindingly bright, swathed in gold leaf and sunshine, to the extraordinary and historically significant plain of Bagan and the stunning grace and tranquillity of Inle Lake and the Shan Plateau, it is a land of undiscovered wealth and aesthetics.

Yet the people look haunted. They are repressed in the most brutal way by a military intent on holding power at whatever cost. Backed now by China, it is close to a puppet state, exploited for its natural resources, food and illegal drug manufacture. How the long-suffering people of Myanmar carry on is a miracle in an atmosphere of arbitrary arrest and detention. Thousands have disappeared without explanation. The rule of law has been cast to one side entirely. Show trials and trumped-up criminal charges, such as those that have resulted in the imprisonment once again of Aung San Suu Kyi, are common.

Worse still has been the treatment of children. The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews reported in 2022 that: ‘The junta’s relentless attacks on children underscore the generals’ depravity and willingness to inflict immense suffering on innocent victims in its attempt to subjugate the people of Myanmar’.

How repellent it is to have a military so craving of power that it should attack its own children. Yet the justified outrage expressed so often at the treatment of the Ukrainians by Russia in our media and by Australians at large seems to be oddly missing when it comes to our near neighbour.

On the back of appalling and unlawful conduct by the military government, in April it committed what can only be regarded as a war crime. Pazi Gyi village was targeted by the military at 8am on the morning of April 11 during a celebration for the opening of a new administration office leading into Thingyan New Year festivities. At least 100 people were killed from a combination of bombing and helicopter gunship fire.

The UN Secretary General spoke out immediately at the horror of the attack and current UN Human Rights High Commissioner Volker Türk condemned it, saying that ‘It appears schoolchildren performing dances, as well as other civilians, attending an opening ceremony at the hall in Pazi Gyi village, Kanbalu Township were among the victims. A helicopter gunship then reportedly fired on those fleeing the hall.”

This attack is by no means an isolated incident. Systemic bombings and airborne attacks have been a hallmark of the tactics used by the military junta since its 2021 coup. It has been calculated and reported that outside of Ukraine, the next highest number of battles in any one country in the world in 2022 was in Myanmar.

What has been the reaction of our own country? It took a lot longer to sanction members of the Myanmar military than it did the Russians. Only on February 1 did Australia sanction 16 individuals and two military conglomerates, according to Human Rights Watch. Has our attention been so captured by what are perceived as the big global events such as the war in the Ukraine and the need to deal with China through the AUKUS alliance, that we have been distracted from the plight of the Burmese? Or was it regarded as a job for ASEAN, of which Australia is a member, albeit that ASEAN has had little real impact in preventing the terrible events that have unfolded in Myanmar?

Either way, it is important to speak of a conflict in a near neighbour, when the most flagrant human rights abuses and likely crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed. Myanmar is also a narco-factory. Australian Federal Police estimates that up to 70% of methamphetamine in Australia comes from Myanmar. Given Australia’s unhealthy appetite for meth, that alone is a reason to be deeply concerned.

But it’s the crimes committed by the government of Myanmar against its own people that requires our full attention. Australia is in a position to place pressure on Myanmar and its junta. This requires Australians to be familiar with and understand the extent of the problems occurring in that hapless country, which starts from writing and speaking about it, and by not allowing other important conflicts and events to distract us when the people of Myanmar need support.

If we feel powerless about the plight of the Burmese, we are not. We have Aung San Suu Kyi’s advice that ‘When you’re feeling helpless, help someone’. If we are indeed feeling a bit helpless about the horror of present circumstances in Myanmar, then let’s help the Burmese in any way we can when they need it the most. We have been comfortable supplying Ukraine with arms: what about the Burmese resistance? If not, then upping non-lethal aid is an option. There is also likely to be a coming sham election held in an attempt to legitimise the ruling junta, and we should call that out for what it is.

The civil strife in Myanmar is complex and there is no easy answer, but it is concerning that there is not more dialogue in Australia about a conflict in our own region over which we may exert influence. The Burmese regime is also illegitimate and we should be doing all we can to see it off.