Sydney peace prize laureates call for more sanctions against Myanmar military figures

Marise Payne says she is considering further sanctions but advocates say it is time for action not words

The Australian government is considering expanding sanctions against military figures in Myanmar, as it faces calls from Sydney Peace Prize laureates to act quickly against individuals who played a key role in the coup.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) said on Thursday the situation in Myanmar was “highly volatile” and deteriorating.

Ridwaan Jadwat, who is in charge of Dfat’s southeast Asia division, said nationwide protests and civil disobedience continued to grow, and the response from the military was increasingly violent.

At least 250 people had been killed and about 2,300 arrested, he said.

The foreign minister, Marise Payne, confirmed she was weighing up additional targeted sanctions, beyond the five military figures who have been on the list since 2018.

Payne said she was “continuing to take advice on that and reviewing that with colleagues” – but was unable to say when that would be completed.

“It is an important matter, I take it seriously and undertake to engage appropriately with the committee on that,” she said.

Five laureates of the Sydney Peace Prize have written to Payne to say they are “deeply alarmed by the recent events in Myanmar” and to urge her to take a number of steps, including “immediately increasing the scope of sanctions on the organisers of the coup and ensuing crimes against humanity”.

The letter – signed by Tracey Spicer, Joseph Stiglitz, Naomi Klein, George Gittoes, Sekai Holland, John Pilger and Arundhati Roy – said Australia’s influence in the region gave it “a unique opportunity to promote peace and human rights”.

Other suggested steps included “rejecting an illegal regime, and supporting the return of the democratically elected government of Myanmar”.

“The military leadership behind this coup should be investigated under international law for allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Rohingya population of Myanmar and war crimes and crimes against humanity against other ethnic and religious minorities in Kachin and Shan States,” the letter said.

April Htet Htet Khaing
‘Every morning I wake up to hear news about people losing life,’ says April Htet Htet Khaing, a Darwin-based student whose parents fled Myanmar in 1988. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Sydney Peace Prize laureates endorsed a call by the UN special rapporteur on human rights, Tom Andrews, to impose sanctions on both senior junta leaders and their major sources of revenue, including military-owned and controlled enterprises.

The letter recommended sanctions against 10 individuals, including the military’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and six state entities, including Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation.

Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar, told Guardian Australia there was clear evidence of the Myanmar military junta committing crimes against humanity, and that time was long overdue for Australia to act.

“Australia failed to act after the 2017 genocide against the Rohingya and it is failing to act now by dithering on sanctions against military businesses, which enable the atrocity crimes and rampant corruption of the generals,” she said.

“While Australia ‘considers’ sanctions, more people are being gunned down in the streets. How many more people must be killed by the military before Australia takes meaningful action?

“It is time for Australia to stand with the people of Myanmar and designate MEHL, MEC and their significant business partners for targeted sanctions. We need action, not words.”

Dfat officials were asked on Thursday why Australia had not signed up to a strongly worded “statement by ambassadors to Myanmar” on 19 March that was backed by European Union members, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The statement condemned the security forces for the “immoral and indefensible” brutal violence against unarmed civilians.

It also called the Myanmar’s military’s actions “abhorrent” and urged it take a number of steps including ceasing violence and restoring the democratically elected government.

Jadwat said it was “a judgment made by the ambassador on the ground” not to join that statement “on this occasion”, but Australia supported the sentiments.

The Dfat secretary, Frances Adamson, said the department “should have consulted the foreign minister – that is a failing on our part and we bear responsibility for it”.

Payne said she had been working with Asean counterparts and others “to identify possible paths forward” following the coup on 1 February.

But she argued there was “no clear path in relation to how to work with partners to address the impacts of the coup and how to engage with the leaders of the regime, if and how that is appropriate and what form that would take”.

Dfat confirmed that consular officials had spoken twice to Prof Sean Turnell, the Australian economist who has been detained in Myanmar, once by video link on 11 February, followed by a phone call on Wednesday.

Lynette Wood, a first assistant secretary, said the Australian government was “undertaking extensive and sustained representations to Myanmar and to other governments regarding his detention”.

In early March, the Australian government suspended military cooperation with Myanmar and announced it would redirect aid to non-government organisations, but it has faced persistent calls to take a stronger stance.

April Htet Htet Khaing, a Darwin-based student whose parents fled Myanmar in 1988, was among a delegation of Myanmar community representatives who met about 20 Australian MPs and senators to call for decisive action last week.

“Back home, a friend of mine who was just 17 years old, a young medical student who took part in a peaceful protest, was shot dead,” she said.

“I have constant fear of every morning waking up, wondering if I would hear from [relatives in Myanmar] again. Every morning I wake up to hear news about people losing life.”

Joel MacKay, a campaigner with Amnesty International Australia, called for “targeted multilateral sanctions against high-ranking officials” as part of a “coordinated global effort”.


Daniel Hurst and Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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