Myanmar shadow embassy opens in Canberra to champion Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted government

Not far from the imposing, official embassy is a welcoming space in a rented house where Australian and Myanmar flags fly alongside symbols of the resistance

In Myanmar, a resistance armed with homemade weapons is trying to take down the ruling military junta.

In Canberra, the fight has begun to get the Australian government to recognise Myanmar’s democratically elected national unity government (NUG).

On a quiet suburban street, a shadow embassy has emerged. Not far from the imposing, official Myanmar embassy in Yarralumla, the office – a welcoming space in a rented house – opened last week.

The NUG’s representative in Australia, Dr Tun-Aung Shwe, answers the door wearing a traditional longyi. He shows Guardian Australia around a space where Australian and Myanmar flags fly alongside symbols of the resistance.

Shwe stands next to a sculpted hand with three fingers raised in defiance – the symbol of the spring revolution – as he talks about the murderous junta that seized control in his homeland in February last year.

The junta has killed hundreds of civilians, and executed political prisoners. The recent executions showed the junta as a “terrorist” organisation that will never listen, or change, he says.

“They are killing innocent civilians every day. They are burning villages, religious buildings every day.”

But Shwe hopes that the resistance will prevail.

“People took homemade rifles to fight the military. Rocket launchers made by hand, to fight against the well-equipped military,” he says.

It’s the third time the south-east Asian country has been under brutal military rule, Shwe says, calling it a “vicious circle”.

Successive generations have fought against the junta. This time, he says, “all the people in Myanmar have decided that this fight must be a final fight”.

In Australia, though, his end game is for the Australian government to recognise the NUG, founded by Aung San Suu Kyi, as the real Burmese government.


Last week, senior foreign affairs officials and politicians signalled their embrace of the alternative diplomatic post. The Labor MP Peter Khalil, Greens senator Jordon Steele-John and new independent MP Zoe Daniel joined officials at the opening.

Australia’s Burmese diaspora donated everything in the embassy, from money for rent and office furniture to a stunning gilded harp and offering vessels.

Portraits of NUG’s leaders adorn a wall. There’s president U Win Myint, who has been under house arrest since the coup, and acting president Duwa Lashi La. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained on the day of the coup and has been in prison ever since, is there, as is the shadow prime minister, Mahn Winn Khaing Thann.

There are different levels of recognition that Australia could offer the NUG, Shwe says. Even attending the embassy opening was “a certain level of recognition”.

On a practical basis, one of his priorities is to be able to renew passports of Burmese students in Australia.

Embassies represent specific countries, not specific governments, but the diaspora suspect the employees at Myanmar’s official diplomatic post are loyal to the junta. Guardian Australia has contacted the embassy for a response.

Dr Tun-Aung Shwe, the Myanmar national unity government representative in Australia, outside the shadow embassy in Canberra
Dr Tun-Aung Shwe, the Myanmar national unity government representative in Australia, outside the shadow embassy in Canberra. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“Myanmar students are studying in Australia and they don’t want to go back to Myanmar because of this political turmoil,” Shwe says.

“They can stay here with a bridging visa … but some students, who took part in the anti-coup behaviour … when their passport is going to expire they have a lot of hesitation about going to the junta office.”

The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) chief executive officer, Marc Purcell, says the junta leaders are “murderers, criminals” whom the UN has accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

“We have a choice to recognise these criminals, or to recognise the democratically elected leaders of Myanmar,” he says.

“The Australian people want the democrats recognised, not the thugs.”

ACFID and others – including Labor when it was in opposition – have called for Australia to implement targeted sanctions against the junta leaders, something the government is considering.

Shwe, though, worries that the junta is too far gone to even respond to international pressure.

He points out the Australian government can also use the universal jurisdiction principle, which allows countries to seek justice for people who are unable to do so themselves within their own countries, or through the international criminal court.

Shwe is hopeful that the country is more united than ever before against the junta, because this time everyone has seen the atrocities that were previously limited to regional areas or specific ethnic minorities. The internet has helped.

In Myanmar, there are peaceful protests alongside the armed resistance. Protesters brave the streets of Yangon for brief protests. Others bang pots and pans to express their distress. They talk through social media, always afraid that the ever-watchful junta will seize their phones, and detain them.

And still the junta rounds up innocent people – the Australian professor Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, is still in prison. The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said on Thursday Turnell’s safety was the government’s “first priority”.

She was not at the shadow embassy’s opening, but was in Cambodia for an Asean meeting, where she spoke about how “appalled and distressed” Australia was with the recent executions.

Sanctions against the regime members were “under active consideration”, she said.

“I’ve also made clear that we are willing and open to engagement with the NUG as I did in opposition. We intend to continue down that path in government,” Wong said.

Shwe is one part of a global, organised movement to return Myanmar to civilian rule.

Ko Naing Saulsman is from the CRPH/NUG support group of Australia – the CRPH is the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar’s legislative body-in-exile.

The resistance will not stop, Saulsman says. “The more the military oppress, and torture … they’re realising there’s no turning back.

“We must win this fight, especially for the young people.

“What they feel is ‘if we live, we have no future under the military dictatorship. If we die fighting this military at least we can pride ourselves that the future Burmese people have a democracy’.”


Tory Shepherd

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Daniel Hurst and Ben Doherty

25, Mar, 2021 @8:37 AM

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
Aung San Suu Kyi and Australian adviser handed three years’ jail after secret trial
Myanmar junta’s sentencing of ousted leader and economic adviser Sean Turnell described as ‘cruel injustice’

Rebecca Ratcliffe and agencies

29, Sep, 2022 @4:49 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
‘A remarkable man’: Anthony Albanese confirms release of Sean Turnell from Myanmar jail
The prime minister pays tribute to foreign minister Penny Wong for diplomacy that led to freeing of Australian economist after 650 days

Katharine Murphy Political editor in Bangkok

17, Nov, 2022 @2:12 PM

Article image
Australia faces calls to cut military ties with Myanmar after coup
Australia is understood to fear that isolating country risks driving junta into China’s embrace

Daniel Hurst and Ben Doherty

02, Feb, 2021 @9:59 AM

Article image
UN decries Myanmar ‘catastrophe’ as Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial looms
Human rights commissioner says junta is ‘singularly responsible for crisis’ before ousted leader’s trial

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

11, Jun, 2021 @3:30 PM

Article image
Marise Payne calls in Myanmar ambassador after Australian adviser to Aung Sun Suu Kyi detained
Foreign affairs minister says Australian government ‘deeply concerned’ about reports Sean Turnell has been detained in Myanmar

Elias Visontay

07, Feb, 2021 @12:32 AM

Article image
‘Shameful inaction’: Myanmar civil groups urge Australia to sanction coup generals
Almost 400 organisations say Morrison government’s decision not to impose sanctions is disappointing and emboldens military junta

Ben Doherty

17, May, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation is tarnished, but she is not Myanmar | Vasuki Shastry
To protect the country’s democratic values, the international community will have to work with her elected party, says Chatham House’s Vasuki Shastry

Vasuki Shastry

01, Feb, 2021 @1:46 PM