House debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

Private Members' Business


4:45 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:


(a)   the actions of the Myanmar military is a direct assault on Myanmar's transition to democracy and the rule of law; and

(b) Australia is a great friend of Myanmar and is deeply concerned for the welfare and wellbeing of the people of Myanmar;

(2) condemns the Myanmar military for:

(a) seizing control of Myanmar; and

(b) the detention of numerous political and civil society leaders in Myanmar; and

(3) calls on the:

(a) Myanmar military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized and release the activists and officials they have detained; and

(b) Government to review Australia's defence cooperation program with Myanmar in light of the Myanmar military's seizure of power and consider additional targeted sanctions as appropriate.

The actions in Myanmar have shocked all of us. We can only do one thing as parliamentarians and as civil leaders, and that is to condemn the actions of the Myanmar military. In my opening statements I would like to note on the record again parts of this motion. It says:

That this House:


the actions of the Myanmar military is a direct assault on Myanmar's transition to democracy and the rule of law—

It goes on:

condemns the Myanmar military for:

(a) seizing control of Myanmar; and

(b) the detention of numerous political and civil society leaders—

in the country. It then:

calls on the:

Myanmar military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized and release the activists and officials they have detained—

I note government members will be speaking on this motion, and I welcome them to join Labor and other members of this place in this motion. I know that many others wanted to speak today, but with the time allotted for this debate we couldn't have as many speakers as we would like.

Australia is a great friend of Myanmar and is deeply concerned for its welfare and wellbeing. Since announcing and tabling this motion, I've had many people reach out to me. The transition to democracy has not been smooth—granted—but it has been extensive. We can be very proud in this place in the role that Australia and Australian parliamentarians have played and the way in which Myanmar has come along that path.

In 2011 they held their first elections in many years—not a full election. In 2015, it was their first full and free election for many decades. I had the great privilege of being there on that day as one of the international observers selected by this parliament to represent our role in that transition.

Many may forget that the Australian Electoral Commission was involved in helping Myanmar establish their own electoral commission. They attended our 2013 election and worked out very quickly what they did not want to see what happen in Myanmar in 2015. But, as Senator Dean Smith and Senator Scott Ludlam and myself witnessed, so much of what happened on that day mimicked and reflected what happened in Australia. Voting occurred in school halls and in faith based institutions. The school principal or head mistress tended to be the head of the polling division. There were scrutineers involved at all stages. I can remember getting there at six o'clock in the morning and thinking that there is no Australian I would know who would be there at six o'clock ready to vote when polling opened. But, on this day in 2015, they did. There were queues. People were so excited to be able to cast a vote for the first time in decades, and they did. After that time, we saw the transition—a government, a parliament.

I also had the opportunity to visit their parliament in 2019, and I witnessed their parliament in action. Their question time—I have to be frank—is a lot more constructive than our own: MPs, including government MPs, asked their own ministers questions and had slideshow presentations, and their questions would quite often go for a couple of minutes. They asked about issues that mattered to their community. These are just two examples of how far this country has come—how they, as a people, have embraced democracy. I acknowledge the role that civil society has played in Myanmar throughout the decades, particularly in the last three weeks, since the military coup.

Like many Australians, I am concerned about the violence. I am concerned about the detention and I am concerned about the deaths that have occurred. I join many other parliamentarians in this place and parliamentarians all over the world calling for the military to give up the power that they have seized and hand it back to the democratically elected people.

Australia has a role to play. We have done it in the past, and we can do it again today. This motion is one step on that journey. I hope that this is the first of many motions and many opportunities for parliamentarians to come together in this place, and an opportunity for the Australian government to again be a world leader when it comes to Myanmar. Let us join the steps of the United States, of the UK and of Canada and place sanctions on a military who refuse to give back power to the democratically elected people. The people are on the path to democracy, and we should stand with them.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded.

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right.

4:51 pm

Photo of Angie BellAngie Bell (Moncrieff, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian sense of a fair-go for our neighbours extends to compassion for the plight of many people around the world. This is often demonstrated through Australian government aid, through private charities and through the work of Australian volunteers and NGOs abroad. Australia is, typically, measured in its approach to foreign affairs and sensitive to the complexities of different nations. We speak up for our values and respect the rights of others to shape their own values. We have a strong record of international cooperation, and stand for the rules based order.

We know that the people of Myanmar have faced significant difficulties for many years. I don't intend to delve into the complexities right now, only to make a few comments in support of peaceful resolution of the current situation in a manner that has regard for the human rights of everybody in Myanmar. Myanmar has more than one-third of its population living in extreme poverty. It is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, and democracy is its best pathway to prosperity.

I do support the spirit of this motion, though not the exact text of it. There are risks in managing this matter that I believe the foreign minister is handling with appropriate care. Since 2017, Akhaya Women in Myanmar and Australia's International Women's Development Agency, the IWDA, has delivered a unique Women Supporting Women mentoring program. Supported by DFAT, I myself have been participating in the program to mentor a newly elected MP over the last 12 months. One practical measure that we can take is to make the most of our direct networks to encourage and support them. In parallel, speaking in this place does serve to send a public message to Myanmar that Australia is watching and that we want the best for its people.

In early 2019 on a parliamentary delegation to Bangladesh, hosted by Save the Children and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I saw firsthand Australian aid assisting approximately 850,000 Rohingya refugees and the surrounding Bangladeshi host communities of 400,000 locals at Cox's Bazar. I've spoken previously in this place about the human rights violations that were targeted at the Rohingya in Rakhine State. Without revisiting the detail of that now, I wish to simply make the observation that it underscores the seriousness of the situation in Myanmar.

I share the broad bipartisan concerns in this place regarding reports of the actions of the Myanmar military and the detention of State Councillor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. We are definitely deeply concerned about the developments that have occurred in Myanmar over the past weeks, including the detention of eminent Australian economist Professor Sean Turnell. We call for the immediate release of Professor Turnell and Myanmar's elected leaders and others who have been arbitrarily detained since 1 February. We are extremely concerned about reports of an increased military presence on the streets of Yangon, Mandalay and the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and we're deeply saddened by reports of the deaths of three civilian protesters in the last few days. The use of deadly force or violence against civilians is simply unacceptable. We continue to strongly urge the Myanmar security forces to exercise restraint and refrain from violence in response to peaceful protests.

Australia has been a longstanding supporter of Myanmar and its democratic transition and it's hard for all of us to see so much progress reversed. I am very concerned that Myanmar's fragile decade-long democratic transition has faltered. The military should respect the rule of law and resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms. The immediate release of all civilians leaders and others who have been unlawfully detained is the urgent first step necessary to begin the restoration of the democratic transition. A peaceful reconvening of the national assembly, consistent with the results of the November 2020 general election, should urgently follow. The people of Myanmar deserve peace and economic development out of widespread poverty, which, indeed, only democracy can afford them.

We, here in Australia—the Australian government, the foreign minister and, indeed, the Prime Minister—are aware of all of the media reports coming out of Myanmar. We are monitoring the situation in the press very, very closely. I thank members opposite for they have delivered here today in the chamber and for their contribution to this very sensitive issue around the conflict in Myanmar.

4:56 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

5:01 pm

Photo of Dave SharmaDave Sharma (Wentworth, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

5:06 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Bendigo for raising this important motion before the House. Clearly, the recent developments in Myanmar are a concern for all of us. The military coup has seen the armed services effectively seize control of the country and detain many of the political and social leaders of Myanmar. The military coup represents an assault on Myanmar's transition to democracy, and certainly an assault on the rule of law, with the military overthrowing a legitimate government, ousting the state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and placing her under house arrest and detention.

The military coup ends a decade-old, fragile democracy. The people of Myanmar are certainly experiencing mass disruption and protests across the nation, which are now being met by the armed forces with violence and aggression. Only recently—as a matter of fact, only yesterday—I learnt of two people being killed and 20-odd being hospitalised as a result of military action taken against protesters. Australia has always been a good friend to Myanmar. We've wished it well in terms of developing its own democracy, and therefore the welfare of the people of Myanmar has always been central to our country as well.

For many, the military coup has revived memories of the bloody outbreaks of the opposition almost 30 years ago, where the armed forces, again, led a fearful campaign in Myanmar. As one local resident put it to the BBC:

Waking up to learn your world has been completely turned upside down overnight was not a new feeling, but a feeling that I thought that we had moved on from, and one that I never thought we'd be forced to feel again.

These are the feelings of apprehension, anger and disappointment engulfing the people of Myanmar as they come to terms with the military's betrayal and their loss of a hard-fought battle to establish a democracy.

Furthermore, the military coup in Myanmar raises significant concerns not only for the remaining Rohingya population but also for the many ethnic groups that live in the country, as Dan Sullivan from Refugees International highlights, noting that another mass expulsion remains a real possibility. This puts further strains on an already overburdened humanitarian response resulting from the displacement of over 700,000 Rohingya seeking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. We must remember that this is the same military that committed the genocide and mass atrocities against the Rohingya that has perpetrated this coup in Myanmar.

Evidence from a number of investigations by Human Rights Watch has documented extrajudicial killings, torture, destruction, takeover of villages, endemic rape and sexual violence, and these have all been laid at the feet of the Myanmar military. Given Aung San Suu Kyi, who I and many supported in marches years back, turned what can only be considered an apparent blind eye to the genocides occurring under her watch and given her failure to acknowledge any of these atrocities, even seeking the assistance of the international community at the time, she must bear some responsibility for the current state of affairs.

The situation in Myanmar is a collective international failure, with the Myanmar military clearly being emboldened by the distinct lack of action taken by the global community when it came to its campaign of ethnic cleansing. In light of the escalating crisis in Myanmar, I join with many of the humanitarian organisations, including Amnesty International, and call on the Australian government to review its defence cooperation with Myanmar and to suspend its military aid to that country. Clearly this is a case that warrants targeted sanctions against the senior members of the military responsible for the coup and also those responsible for the atrocities against the Rohingya and other minorities. It's also clear to me this is an example of why Australia should effectively legislate Magnitsky-style legislation. We should never be timid when it comes to calling out human rights violations.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The honourable member's time has expired. There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.