Monday, 22 February 2021
Private Members' Business
I rise to second the motion moved by the member for Bendigo. I'd like to thank her for raising this issue in parliament and I would like to acknowledge the many communities here in Australia who have come from Myanmar and made Australia their home, many of whom I know live in the member for Bendigo's electorate, and I thank her for her fierce advocacy.
In November 2020, a nation-wide election was held for the national, state and regional parliaments in Myanmar. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, had an overwhelming win—a win that all domestic and international observers agreed was free and fair. Myanmar's commander-in-chief chose not to honour the outcome of the election, where the military party had a dismal showing. On 1 February 2021, the very day the new parliament was to have its inaugural session and select a new President, the general staged a coup d'etat, arresting the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and President Win Myint, and many other leading figures. Also detained were MPs, ministers, senior civil servants, some prominent intellectuals, including writers, musicians and artists, as well the Australian economics and banking adviser, Dr Sean Turnell. Many of the detainees, including Dr Turnell, are incommunicado and their whereabouts are unknown, although I understand there has been one Zoom contact with the doctor recently.
To say the coup is a setback for the fledgling democracy, which is emerging from over 50 years of army rule, is a gross understatement. It is a dangerous and deadly infringement on the rights of Myanmar's people. The people of Myanmar, especially the youth, have been bravely demonstrating against the military coup and, tragically, this has resulted in several people being killed. It doesn't bode well. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has condemned the use of deadly violence and called for all parties to respect the election result and for the return to civilian rule. The Inter-Parliamentary Union's Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians has strongly condemned the coup, calling on the military to abide by the democratic will of the people and the rule of law. Members of the NLD themselves, who have not been detained but are having to stealthily avoid arrest, have bravely declared that they will try to perform the duties given to them by the people and do any tasks necessary for the release of their President, State Counsellor and other detained individuals. They have called on the international community for support.
I am lucky enough to have visited Myanmar and, indeed, to have met Aung San Suu Kyi, actually having tea in her house. She had been newly elected in 2015 and had only recently been released from house arrest. It was a great time of hope and celebration, even though the generals retained substantial power under the constitution. We all believed it was a move towards a true democracy for that country. The modernisation process they were about to undertake was enormous, from establishing a central banking system to legislating for workers' rights and building a representative human rights council.
Australia lifted sanctions and we involved ourselves, along with others, in playing a small albeit important role in assisting the transition. Many of us were disappointed in the new Myanmar government's role in the forced displacement and genocide of the Rohingya people in 2017. In fact, in 2018, I went to Bangladesh and visited Cox's Bazaar, where nearly a million Rohingya refugees were living. It was, to say, a mind-blowing experience—a crisis of huge proportions right on our doorstep, yet to be resolved in any meaningful way. And so the new democracy is not perfect, but the international community knew that any hope of changing the discriminatory citizens law, which was designed to racially exclude Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities, lay with a democratic elected government and not the military. That is the view that many people from the Myanmar ethnic minority communities here in Australia have expressed to me.
The brave people of Myanmar are protesting the coup. The international community must do so as well. Many MPs in Australia have condemned the actions of the military. The IPU are calling on MPs from all over the world to include their names on a global list supporting the newly elected MPs in Myanmar, who have bravely declared they will stay active during this time, at great risk to themselves. If any MPs in this House would like to do so, please contact my office, and we can facilitate that. I ask that this House supports this motion and calls on the military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized and to release the activists and officials they have detained and for the Australian government to review Australia's defence cooperation with Myanmar in light of the military seizure of power.