Commentary |
23 April 2021

Time for talk is over: Australia must take a greater role in tackling Myanmar crisis

Originally published in The Australian.

Australian foreign policy can be a rarefied world of strategists debating lofty concepts like the balance of power, the Quad and the Indo-Pacific. But it is in times of crisis that the rubber of foreign policy thinking truly meets the road.

Myanmar offers a pressing case in point. The downward spiral of the country since the military seized power on 1 February is not only a calamity for its 54 million citizens. It is a humanitarian and geopolitical debacle with consequences that will ripple through Southeast Asia; a region whose stability functions as the protective membrane for Australia’s own security.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has condemned the military crackdown and discussed the Myanmar crisis in calls with her regional counterparts. But Australia’s approach so far has been timid and reactive.

Despite its long track record of pragmatic, problem-solving diplomacy, Canberra has been curiously absent from regional efforts to tackle the crisis.

Our neighbour Indonesia has stepped up, pushing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to hold a special summit on Myanmar in Jakarta this weekend. China has been busy too, inviting the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines for in-person talks on Myanmar. Its embassy in Yangon has even made contact with Myanmar’s shadow government, something Australia’s diplomats have so far been reluctant to do.

No one, including China, is happy with the coup or instability. Everyone at a minimum would like to see peace and stability returned. But as the death toll in Myanmar rises and the humanitarian fallout grows, neighbouring powers will feel the pull to intervene unilaterally to safeguard their interests.

It is no longer enough just to talk a good game. Now is the time to show more diplomatic ingenuity and ambition. As a well-connected middle power, one step removed from the crisis, Australia can help to bridge the divided global response to the coup.

While the US, UK and the EU have swiftly ratcheted up sanctions on the Myanmar military, most ASEAN member-states have taken a softly-softly approach alongside India, China and Japan. But neither of these approaches, on their own, is likely to change the military’s calculus.

Australia is well placed to promote a deeper dialogue between our Southeast Asian and Quad partners – the US, Japan and India – about how to push for the same ends in Myanmar, even if the means are different.

With no great power baggage and none of the partisan interests of Myanmar’s direct neighbours, such as China, India and Thailand, Australia can bring a hard-headed but even-handed approach to these discussions.

Zoom diplomacy will not suffice. Face-to-face talks are vital for honest dialogue. The foreign minister – or a special envoy – will need to embark on shuttle diplomacy to help build a broader coalition to lean on Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, towards a negotiated settlement.

Myanmar’s fate will largely be decided on the ground, as the Tatmadaw wages war against its own people. But Australia has the convening power to build a more co-ordinated international response, maximising the outside world’s limited leverage.

That is the best hope for stopping the violence and securing the release of the many political prisoners, including our friend Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who was advising the elected government and was detained in the aftermath of the coup.

This coup has failed on its own terms. It was designed as a surgical strike to destroy the upper echelons of the civilian government and restore the Tatmadaw to its position as the central political broker in a ‘hybrid democracy’.

However, the Tatmadaw is discovering it can rule through the barrel of a gun but cannot govern through it. The junta has been taken aback by the strength of the resistance, from the Civil Disobedience Movement to the formation of a National Unity Government, led by deposed politicians.

While democracy activists are risking their lives to fight for Myanmar’s future, the global spotlight is starting to fade as the violence becomes normalised. The mood in many foreign capitals, not least in Canberra, is one of resignation and complacency.

Yet doing nothing would be dangerously short sighted. A prolonged impasse in Myanmar would imperil regional stability, paralyse ASEAN and open a new front for geopolitical wrangling.

Threading the needle to prevent an unhelpful West-versus-East dynamic that inhibits co-operation will not be easy. It will require transcending policy comfort zones. This at a time when Canberra is consumed by domestic politics and fixated on China.

The upshot, at a time when the relationship with Beijing seems immovable, is that Australia would do better to invest in moving the needle on virtually any other foreign policy challenge.

The window of opportunity to arrest the Myanmar crisis was always limited and is rapidly getting smaller.

That is why Australia must urgently step up its efforts to build a co-ordinated global response that puts peace and stability above rivalry and rancour.

As one Indonesian government adviser says of his nation’s efforts to tackle the Myanmar crisis: “We might fail, but at least we can say we tried.”

Ben Bland is the Director of the Southeast Asia Program and Hervé Lemahieu is the Director of the Power and Diplomacy Program at the Lowy Institute.