Australia condemns 'indefensible' killings in Myanmar but stops short of imposing sanctions

Marise Payne says Australia is ‘gravely concerned about the rising death toll’ after 38 people were reported killed during peaceful protests

The Australian government has called on Myanmar’s security forces to cease the violent response to protests, voicing grave concerns about the rising death toll and condemning the killings of minors as “indefensible”.

But the government has stopped short of outlining any additional sanctions against figures in Myanmar’s military, as the deadliest day of violence since last month’s coup sparked new calls for tougher action from Canberra.

At least 38 people were reported killed on Wednesday after security forces opened fire on peaceful anti-coup protesters in multiple towns and cities.

Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said Australia condemned the recent deadly violence across Myanmar, and was “gravely concerned about the rising death toll, including the indefensible deaths of minors”.

“We extend our condolences to the bereaved families,” Payne said on Thursday evening.

“The use of lethal force or violence against civilians exercising their right to assembly is unacceptable. Australia continues to strongly urge the Myanmar security forces to exercise restraint and refrain from violence in response to protests.”

But Payne did not respond directly to questions about imminent additional action by the Australian government, amid increasing speculation that Canberra was considering plans to toughen its response.

Scott Morrison and the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, discussed the situation in Myanmar during a phone call on Wednesday. Australia has, since 2018, applied sanctions against five senior military figures but not against the commander in chief.

Labor’s Senate leader and foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said the crackdown against protesters by Myanmar’s military regime was unacceptable.

Wong said the Morrison government “must send a clear signal to Myanmar’s military leaders that violence is unacceptable, and that democracy must be restored”.

“Despite this escalation of violence and repression, we are yet to see any clear action from Marise Payne. This is simply not good enough,” Wong told Guardian Australia on Thursday.

Wong reaffirmed her party’s previous calls for the government to review Australia’s defence cooperation program and consider additional targeted sanctions in light of the military’s seizure of power.

The Greens senator Janet Rice called for an end to “this brutal, oppressive coup” and expressed outrage that the military had killed dozens of innocent protestors, “some of whom were only teenagers”.

Rice, who is the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, said the United States and New Zealand had both announced clear responses to the coup, including cutting military ties and expanding targeted sanctions against key generals, whereas the Australian government had “only issued public statements and hasn’t acted”.

Rice said the the Australian government must stand with the brave people of Myanmar and ensure that it was not “part of legitimising, or in any way supporting, the brutal Myanmar military”.

She called on Australia to “immediately scrap all military ties with Myanmar until democratic processes have been restored, and impose targeted sanctions on General Min Aung Hlaing and all others involved in this action by the military”.

“Australia should also consider further options, including working multilaterally to extend targeted sanctions to corporate holdings of key generals, and immediate family members who are benefiting from the coup,” she said.

“The Australian government should also accept any political refugees from Myanmar seeking protection in Australia.”

The Australian government has previously 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.

But the escalating violence and steps taken by other nations has increased pressure on Canberra to act more decisively. Experts said the attempt to secure the release of the detained Australian economist Sean Turnell may also be a factor in Canberra’s reluctance to cut ties.

Dr Justine Chambers, an associate director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University, said she expected the Australian government to continue its engagement with the military, particularly during negotiations to release Turnell.

“Unlike other western democracies, Australia has maintained lines of communications with military leaders,” Chambers said on Thursday.

“The military doesn’t respond well to a hardline diplomacy. It’s in Australia’s interests to keep those lines of communications open.”

Earlier this week, pro-democracy advocates called on global oil and gas companies to ensure no money flowed from projects in Myanmar to the government.

Woodside announced last weekend that it would suspend operations in Myanmar, withdraw all of its workers from the country and place “all business decisions [in Myanmar] under review”, marking a shift from comments made earlier by the company’s chief executive.


Daniel Hurst

The GuardianTramp

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