Monday, 22 February 2021
Private Members' Business
I welcome the opportunity to speak to this motion and talk about the significant and serious situation in Myanmar. That country, as many here would know, has had a troubled history. The truth is that its default form of government, for most of its postcolonial history, has been a military dictatorship. Many of us were hopeful about the transition that occurred over the last several years to a quasi elected democracy—not a full democracy, by any stretch—and a somewhat more liberal and free society. But unfortunately, the generals in Myanmar seem to have turned the clock back 30 years. What we seem to be witnessing in Myanmar today has echoes of the events of 1988, 1989 and 1990, when the previous set of free and fair elections were held. The military chose to ignore the results and instituted a state of emergency for one year, which then became, really, 21 years or thereabouts of continued military rule.
The trend in our region—and, indeed, around the world in recent decades—has been towards more democratic and pluralistic forms of government. We saw in the 1990s and 2000s the transition of our largest northern neighbour, Indonesia, from a military dictatorship to a democracy. There was the Philippines as well, of course, and Myanmar was one of the few holdouts in this area. I think the fact that they've gone backwards is enormously alarming, not only because I can't see a way out for them but because the form of democracy that they had enshrined there actually provided a highly privileged position for the military. Members here would be aware that the military had 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament. They were able to appoint the ministers of defence and national security. This effectively meant that they had a veto over any constitutional changes in Myanmar and they had the control on the instruments of power that were the most important to them. But, even with that level of control they were able to exercise, it seems it was insufficient, and they've taken action.
I think it's very important in this instance that we follow the lead of regional countries, particularly ASEAN, the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It was ASEAN that did play a critical role in Myanmar's previous transition to democracy. Particularly, we would look to the democratic champions within ASEAN—most particularly Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia—to take a strong stand and help guide that country forward. As members here would be aware, the generals have said this is going to be initially a one-year state of emergency, if you like, but we've heard that promise before. Obviously, unless we are able to make sure that they make more steadfast commitments than those, we have good cause to be worried about whether that one-year time frame will be honoured.
We have a particular angle, of course, with the detention of Sean Turnell, the Australian academic. As far as I'm aware, he is the only foreign national being detained in Myanmar. Members here would be aware that just last week Australia signed on to a Canadian declaration about the use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment as a tool of statecraft. It would seem that Sean Turnell has fallen victim to this sort of hostage diplomacy. He hasn't been charged with anything. We have had very limited consular access to him. The reasons for his detention completely elude us here in Australia. I know the Minister for Foreign Affairs has been taking a close interest in this. A number of us discussed this issue with her this morning. Australia has been not only looking after the welfare of Sean Turnell but also speaking to a number of other regional countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, I believe, to see how we might be able to encourage their efforts to resolve this situation. It was also a feature of the virtual meeting of quadrilateral foreign ministers last week—the US Secretary of State, the Japanese foreign minister, the Indian foreign minister and our own.
I think it's incredibly important that the international community continues to pay close attention to this issue, because, without outside scrutiny and pressure and outside interest in this case, the generals will simply go back to their default method of being, which is to govern the country and control the country. I've been very encouraged, as I'm sure many have been here, by the civil society protests and outpouring, at considerable cost and risk to themselves, of those people in Myanmar who, although only relatively recently versed in democracy and the freedoms that come with it, have proven to be so brave in seeking to defend and hold on to those freedoms themselves. They deserve our strong support and encouragement to ensure that they are able to continue to exercise their right to peaceful protest. I'll continue to take a close interest in this issue.