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31 March 2021

With Greg Earl

Battle for Myanmar

On Sunday, defence force chiefs from Australia and eleven other countries issued a joint statement urging the Myanmar military to “cease violence and work to restore respect and credibility with the people of Myanmar”.

The chiefs were responding to the massacre of more than 100 people by Myanmar’s security forces on Saturday – the bloodiest day of protests since the 1 February coup.

It's rare for defence chiefs to publicly appeal to a foreign military; this suggests Sunday's statement was also prompted by another development.

The same day that the massacre occurred, Myanmar’s neighbours – Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand – sent military representatives to Naypyitaw to mark Armed Forces Day. Coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing hosted the ceremonies, which were also attended by Russia, one of Myanmar’s key arms suppliers.

So far, Australia has largely responded to the coup by placing sanctions on the military and its top brass, while also supporting a push for diplomatic negotiations, largely led by Indonesia.

But the weekend’s deaths raise the prospect of a prolonged conflict or even a civil war – as do calls by leaders of the exiled parliament for citizens to arm themselves. This may demand a different course of action from Australia.

The Burma Human Rights Network has called on the international community to set up no-fly zones to protect territory controlled by ethnic groups, such as the Karen and Kachin minorities, whose militias have clashed with the military. Others say the UN Responsibility to Protect doctrine should be invoked, which would allow the international community to respond to war crimes with force.

However, the public support that Myanmar’s neighbours showed its military last Saturday suggests that the time for international intervention is still some way off. It would be difficult to implement a no-fly zone or to stage an intervention – humanitarian or otherwise – without the cooperation of neighbouring countries.

In the meantime, the re-emergence of ethnic minority armies suggests that protesters have a potential safe haven for sustained armed resistance to the military junta.

Suez disruption

When the Ever Given container ship ran aground in the Suez Canal last week, it revived international fears about the fragility of supply chains – just as the economy is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 12 per cent of seaborne trade travels though the Arabian Peninsula via the 150-year-old Suez Canal. The incident left about 300 cargo vessels marooned; others rerouted around southern Africa, adding about one week to their journey between Europe and Asia.

The global economy is highly dependent on ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing, which allows manufacturers to cheaply source quality components from multiple suppliers. For example, Toyota relies on a chain of 2100 suppliers to produce its cars.

Australia – a major commodities exporter and an island nation with a diminished manufacturing industry – is highly exposed to disruptions to these complex supply chains.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, there were calls for Australia to reshore more of its manufacturing to reduce this vulnerability. The Morrison government responded by supporting more domestic vaccine production and the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Fund. It also asked the Productivity Commission to assess the country’s supply-chain resilience.

Coincidentally, the Productivity Commission’s first findings were released as the Suez shutdown began. But its interim report suggests Australia is less vulnerable than many people fear. According to its findings, around just 2 per cent of the imports used in essential industries are sourced from a single concentrated supplier.

The report also recommends that individual businesses continue to manage this sort of risk themselves. It found that subsidising domestic manufacturing would not achieve an efficient scale of production for riskier imports and could “crowd out actions that firms would otherwise take to manage their own risks”.

Defining democracy

At his first media conference since taking office, US president Joe Biden talked up plans for a democratic leaders summit, suggesting it will be a major foreign policy priority for the new administration.

Declaring the future of the democratic model to be at stake, he said the summit would host an “alliance of democracies”. It’s expected that India, Australia, South Korea and the advanced industrial countries of the Group of Seven will be included.

“Your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy?” predicted Biden. “That is what is at stake, not just with China.”

Democracy is certainly under challenge. A recent Freedom House report warned that the net reduction in democratic countries last year was the largest since 2006.

But Biden needs to do more than bask in his country’s past glory: he needs to address some changed realities.

For example, the Lowy Institute’s annual poll shows that young people seem to value democracy less than older people.

More importantly, putting aside South Korea, the real struggle for democracy is not being played out in G7 capitals, but in countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

When Scott Morrison attends Biden’s summit, his job will be to explain this situation – and present some real understanding of the state of democracy in the developing world. He can’t treat the summit as an opportunity to hang out with the leaders of other rich countries.


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