Australia is facing growing calls to suspend military cooperation with Myanmar and impose targeted sanctions on top military generals after its army seized power in a coup and detained civilian leaders.

Labor joined calls on Tuesday for the Morrison government to review Australia’s military links and send a “clear signal to Myanmar’s military leaders that their actions are a direct attack on Myanmar’s democratic transition and stability”.

Human Rights Watch said a move by Australia to suspend military links would “send a far stronger signal to Myanmar than keeping ties with a junta that has just committed an outrageous assault against democracy” – a call that was echoed by the Greens.

But Australia has so far appeared reluctant to ratchet up sanctions amid fears of completely isolating Myanmar, even though it has expressed deep concern about the developments and has called on the military to release prisoners, including the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Guardian Australia understands that the Australian government, with a number of other liberal democracies, is worried that cutting off the country risks driving its military leadership into the embrace of China.

A defence spokesperson said on Tuesday: “The government regularly reviews our defence cooperation program and activities. This is a rapidly evolving situation and it is important that we take time to consider the circumstances before any decisions are taken.”

Australia is one of a handful of nations that has continued to cooperate with Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, after the military-led ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in 2017.

Militaries all over the world, including those of the EU, the UK, the US, France and Canada, cut ties with the Tatmadaw over its “disproportionate use of force” that “strongly indicates a deliberate action to expel a minority”.

Australia has, since 2018, applied sanctions against five senior military figures but not against the commander in chief. In the wake of the coup, Joe Biden is now threatening to reimpose US sanctions.

Labor said the Australian government “must stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and ensure the bilateral relationship won’t return to business as usual until democracy is restored and political prisoners are released”.

The opposition’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, and the shadow defence minister, Brendan O’Connor, said the Myanmar military’s seizure of power should spark a review of defence cooperation.

“Following yesterday’s events, the [Australian] government needs to explain whether this cooperation is consistent with Australia’s strategic interests, review other areas of bilateral cooperation and consider additional targeted sanctions as appropriate,” Wong and O’Connor said on Tuesday.

Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said the government should impose travel bans and asset freezes on “the senior leadership responsible for the coup and other serious human rights abuses”.

Pearson said this should include the top military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, who had already been sanctioned by the US government and named in UN reports for his role in atrocities against the Rohingya.

While she described Australia’s military engagement with Myanmar as limited, non-combat-related training, Pearson said Australia should act as it did after the 2014 coup in Thailand, when it suspended such links.

“Clearly Australia’s ongoing engagement with the Myanmar military has not brought genuine reforms – if anything, it’s probably just bolstered the legitimacy of the Tatmadaw,” Pearson told Guardian Australia.

She also renewed calls for Australian to adopt Magnitsky-style laws on human rights abuses, saying the military coup in Myanmar was “another reason why the Australian government shouldn’t delay in passing a targeted sanctions law to streamline the process of coordinated action with other governments”.

The Greens senator Jordon Steele-John said: “The deadly crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017 has stretched this relationship to breaking point and with the events of the last 48 hours, it is clear there can be no more military cooperation until the situation in Myanmar is resolved.”

Despite the events of 2017, Australia remained in cooperation with the Myanmar military, providing up to $400,000 a year towards training in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, peacekeeping and English classes.

The rationale for Australia’s involvement with the Myanmar military, which also dominates the country’s parliament and controls key government posts, is that through engagement Australia gains leverage, can assist with Myanmar’s transition to democracy, and educate its military’s senior officers.

A briefing note produced by the defence department, and revealed under freedom of information legislation, says: “This engagement is designed to expose the Tatmadaw to the ways of a modern, professional defence force and highlight the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law.”

The foreign minister, Marise Payne, told the Senate on Tuesday the political stability of Asean member states was vital to maintaining a peaceful and prosperous region. The minister said she had spoken with counterparts including Brunei – the chair of Asean – and Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, also discussed their deep concerns about the developments in a phone call on Monday evening.

Australia’s development program in Myanmar included a focus on promoting peace and stability and supporting elections, Payne said. She said Australia’s commitment to Myanmar’s development and and its people “continues at this difficult time”, including on the issue of Covid-19 vaccinations.

“Australia has been a longstanding partner for Myanmar through good times and more difficult periods,” Payne said. “We sincerely hope to see Myanmar succeed for the benefit of all of is people and for the region as a whole.”

Chinese state media described the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle” while the Chinese foreign affairs spokesperson merely “noted what has happened”.

Dave Sharma, the Liberal MP for Wentworth and a former Australian ambassador, said he was “very concerned about the apparent military takeover in Myanmar, in what can only be described as a coup”.

Sharma said it was “too soon to be talking about sanctions or things of that nature, until we have heard the views of Asean and other regional players”.

In January 2020 Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar, Andrea Faulkner, met with the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s defence forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who had been recommended by the UN for investigation and prosecution for war crimes and genocide.

Faulkner and Min Aung Hlaing “discussed defence cooperation … [and] the Indo-Pacific region’s geographical politics”, exchanged gifts and posed for photos when they met at the Bayintnaung Villa in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw.


Daniel Hurst and Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Thousands of Myanmar citizens in Australia at risk of being deported to violence back home
Labor urges Morrison government to extend the stay of temporary visa holders and expand sanctions against military figures

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

12, Apr, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Australian senator calls to recognise China’s treatment of Uighurs as genocide
Independent Rex Patrick moves after similar parliamentary motions passed in Canada and the Netherlands

Daniel Hurst

01, Mar, 2021 @9:51 PM

Article image
Australia urged to cut ties with Myanmar military over Rohingya atrocities
Amnesty pushes for support to try 13 security officials in the international criminal court

Ben Doherty

27, Jun, 2018 @3:13 AM

Article image
MPs call for Myanmar citizens to get permanent residency in Australia amid crisis
Committee of Liberal, Nationals, Labor and Greens MPs urge government to consider sanctions after hundreds of deaths in Myanmar

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

24, Jun, 2021 @2:29 AM

Article image
Australia's foreign minister labels China's treatment of Uighurs 'disturbing'
Marise Payne repeats calls for China to end arbitrary detention after internal documents reveal Xi Jinping’s call to ‘show no mercy’ in Xinjiang

Paul Karp

17, Nov, 2019 @11:21 PM

Article image
Myanmar coup: Kevin Rudd joins calls for UN security council intervention
Former Australian PM says world ‘radically underestimating’ how quickly junta violence could deteriorate to tens of thousands of deaths and a refugee crisis

Ben Doherty and Daniel Hurst

31, Mar, 2021 @4:19 AM

Article image
Australia to train Myanmar military despite ethnic cleansing accusations
Defence department spend continues despite claims treatment of Rohingya bears ‘hallmarks of a genocide’

Elise Thomas

05, Mar, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Australia giving 'serious consideration' to US request to help it confront Iran
Mike Pompeo hails ‘unbreakable’ relationship between Washington and Canberra as he urges Australia to join coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf

Katharine Murphy Political editor

04, Aug, 2019 @6:43 AM

Article image
Afghan security guards plead for help after Australia suddenly closes Kabul embassy
Afghans say they have been abandoned and face retribution from the Taliban once Australian forces leave

Ben Doherty and Daniel Hurst

25, May, 2021 @7:45 AM

Article image
Almost half of Australians support sending military to help defend Taiwan, poll suggests
YouGov survey finds people in Australia more likely to favour sending troops than people in Japan and US

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

24, Oct, 2022 @3:00 PM