Democracy campaigners defying the military junta in Myanmar have pleaded with Australia to sanction the generals who engineered February’s coup and the businesses that sustain the military regime.
Nearly 400 civil society organisations inside Myanmar have written an open letter to the foreign minister, Marise Payne, condemning Australia’s “shameful inaction” and urging it to impose new sanctions to de-legitimise the military regime and squeeze its sources of foreign funding.
“We 390 civil society organisations across Myanmar are shocked by Australia’s continued inaction on Myanmar, which emboldens the terrorist military junta,” the letter sent to Payne reads.
“We note that Australia has not imposed sanctions on the military leadership, including the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, or their conglomerates Myanmar Economic Corporation or Myanma Economic Holdings Limited, in stark contrast to the actions taken by Australia’s allies the US, Canada, the EU and UK.”
The signatories to the letter said they were “deeply disappointed” the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had assessed that additional sanctions on Myanmar would not have a positive impact on the Myanmar people.
“It is difficult for us to comprehend how Australia has come to draw such conclusions in this assessment. We are on the ground, in diverse communities across Myanmar. We are part of the masses, risking our lives to oppose the military’s criminal junta.
“In attempting its coup, the military is continuing to commit crimes against humanity, murdering children, while conducting airstrikes on ethnic communities in acts that contravene the Geneva conventions. We strongly call for Australia and the international community to take action against these criminals through targeted sanctions and other appropriate measures.”
The letter said Australia’s “shameful inaction” was discouraging Myanmar’s pro-democracy protesters and “emboldening the very perpetrators of heinous atrocity crimes”.
Appearing last week at a parliamentary inquiry into the Australian government’s response to the coup, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade assistant secretary Lynda Worthaisong said Australia had chosen not to impose additional sanctions against Myanmar officials because it might limit the government’s access to and influence on Myanmar’s military regime.
Worthaisong said that “there would be very little to any positive impact to people on the ground” in Myanmar if sanctions were imposed, and noted Japan, South Korea and countries in the Association of South-east Asian Nations have not introduced sanctions.
“We consider as a country in this region that our interests are best served by having … direct influence,” Worthaisong said.
“We remain fully focused on finding practical ways to make a difference on the ground, to end the violence and to restore democracy.”
Australia has existing sanctions against five officers in the Tatmadaw – as the military is known – accused of overseeing the 2017 pogroms committed against Rohingya Muslims, but these pre-date the military coup. The US, UK, EU and Canada have sanctioned senior generals and military-controlled businesses in the wake of the 1 February coup.
Worthaisong noted that more than 100 days had passed since the coup. “The situation and the outlook remain very bleak, and have deteriorated even further … the death, unfortunately, toll continues to grow.
“Australia has strongly and repeatedly condemned the use of lethal force and violence against civilians. We have called on the security forces to exercise restraint and release all those arbitrarily detained, including state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint.”
The Guardian has seen and verified the endorsement list of organisations that have signed onto the letter. It is choosing not to publish the details of the organisations for fear of reprisals against their members and organisers.
A civil society activist inside Myanmar, whose identity the Guardian has chosen not to reveal, said the citizens of Myanmar were risking their lives to oppose the junta.
“Australia is a major country in the region promoting democracy and human rights … and we need Australia to stand on the side of the people. We expect Australia to stand with us.”
He said protests would continue against the “illegitimate military regime”.
“We have no space to withdraw. We must continue this fight, and we need the world to help.”
Senator Janet Rice, the Australian Greens’ foreign affairs spokesperson, said she would table the Myanmar civil society leaders’ letter in the Senate when parliament resumed.
“It is unconscionable for Australia not to impose sanctions against the junta when that’s exactly what hundreds of organisations on the ground in Myanmar are calling for,” Rice said.
“People are dying in Myanmar and the Australian government is failing them.”