November 1, 2023
The View from Myanmar
Since the Myanmar military’s coup in 2021, which threw out the elected civilian administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the ruling junta has targeted politicians, activists and journalists in different cities across the country. It has arbitrarily detained opposers and applied heavy punishment, including decades-long imprisonment, torture and killings. One of these prisoners was an Australian, Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi. He was released last November after spending 650 days in jail.
After the coup, Australia downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Myanmar. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade appointed a diplomat with ambassadorial experience, Angela Corcoran, to replace the former ambassador to Myanmar, Andrea Faulkner. Before departing in April 2022, Faulkner met with the coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, in Naypyidaw. Human Rights Watch condemned the meeting, stating it was “lending credibility” to the junta. Australia has also imposed sanctions on the regime, albeit cautiously.
Beyond questions about whether Canberra’s diplomatic response to the Myanmar coup has been too soft, there are ongoing concerns about Australia’s humanitarian response, particularly its approach to asylum seekers.
According to DFAT, Australia granted offshore humanitarian visas to more than 20,500 Myanmar nationals between July 2011 and September 2023. A spokesperson told me that Myanmar citizens remain a key cohort in Australia’s offshore humanitarian program.
But Australia needs to do more to ensure that those who successfully flee Myanmar – especially to Thailand – can resettle without being arrested or sent back.
I spoke recently to Nang Mwei, a thirty-five-year-old mother who lives with her husband and seven-year-old daughter in a room in Mae Sot, a border town in Thailand. They fled their home in Myanmar in late 2021 after the military arrested and tortured Nang and her husband due to their journalistic work.
Nang and her family don’t leave their small room unless necessary because they face potential arrest by the Thai immigration police. They have been confined this way for almost two years, waiting for emergency relocation to Australia as part of the resettlement program. Although she has approval for relocation from the Australian embassy, Nang can’t leave Thailand. “If Thai police arrest us . . . they would send us to the prison,” she said. “Fleeing home was our last option. We were hiding inside Myanmar from one city to another for a long time. We had to leave not only for us but also for our daughter’s future.”
The number of Myanmar asylum seekers at the Thai border who have registered to resettle in countries such as Australia and the United States is unknown. The entire application process – including registering with the United Nations Refugee Agency as asylum seekers, being interviewed by an embassy and then staying at a hotel facilitated by the International Organization of Migrants – takes at least a year, sometimes more than eighteen months. And many refugees then remain stuck in Thailand – at risk of arrest or deportation – because the Thai government won’t issue them exit permits. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, so it has no legal obligation to help refugees. It is believed to be concerned that assisting Myanmar refugees to resettle will mean that more refugees will come.
The Australian government and other diplomatic groups should not only pressure Myanmar’s junta over its coup and human rights abuses, but also urge the Thai government to protect refugees, not arrest them.
The continuing atrocities in Myanmar deserve more attention from Australia and across the region. Diplomatic pressure on the junta is crucial, as is assisting those whose lives have been overturned by the military’s rule.
Maung Moe is a pseudonym of a writer in Myanmar.