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30 June 2021

Submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Australia’s Response to the Coup in Myanmar

The following Joint Submission to the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia was made by the Lowy Institute’s Ben Bland and Hervé Lemahieu on Australia’s response to the coup in Myanmar. Their comments were cited in a report produced by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

My name is Ben Bland and I’m the Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute. I co-wrote this statement with Hervé Lemahieu, Director of the Power and Diplomacy Program, who joins us remotely today. 

We want to start by paying tribute to the people of Myanmar. They are putting their lives on the line to defend values that we all profess but rarely have to fight for. 

Today’s hearing comes at a pivotal moment. The window of opportunity to influence events in Myanmar was always limited, but it is getting smaller. 

We know from history that the Tatmadaw is resistant to outside pressure and has few compunctions about isolating the country. The strength of the Civil Disobedience Movement has surprised the junta and grabbed the world’s attention. However, as the Tatmadaw escalates its murderous crackdown, the avenues for resistance and the costs of opposition are rising rapidly. The initial spotlight is also starting to fade as the violence becomes normalised. 

Yet Myanmar today is at risk of becoming a failed state — Southeast Asia’s Afghanistan or Syria. Australia must elevate this issue urgently before it is too late. As a well-connected middle power, Australia has considerable scope to play a more active role in fostering global coordination on Myanmar. Our neighbour Indonesia has stepped up, pushing for a special ASEAN summit on Myanmar. But ASEAN remains divided. 

Rather than blame ASEAN, we should understand its limitations and help it to work with others on the Myanmar crisis. Australia can play a unique bridging role between our Southeast Asian and Quad partners — the United States, Japan and India – who all have significant interests in Myanmar.

A Western-led approach to Myanmar that focuses chiefly on sanctions cannot work by itself. But neither will the softly-softly stance of some ASEAN states, or the narrow self-interest of India, China and Japan. The great powers are hobbled by hesitation, competition and opportunism, while many smaller powers are short of ambition.

With its reputation for pragmatic diplomacy, Australia should encourage a multi-pronged approach. That will mean some nations pursuing a tougher line, while others use back channels and economic leverage to pressure the Tatmadaw.

The government should consider appointing a special envoy to lead talks with our neighbours and the great powers, building a broader coalition to lean on the Tatmadaw. An international conference to address a looming humanitarian crisis is also desperately needed.  

We must be honest about how hard this will be. Myanmar’s fate will largely be decided on the ground, as the Tatmadaw wages war against its own people. The junta seeks to rule through the power of the gun, but it cannot govern through it.

While the window of opportunity to influence Myanmar remains open, Australia and its partners must do more to build a coordinated global response that puts peace and stability above rivalry and rancour.

The report is available here, and the PDF here.