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3 March 2021

With Greg Earl

Myanmar stand-off

Myanmar’s United Nations ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, has been sacked after publicly criticising the military coup that occurred in his country in February.

As the military violence against protesters intensified this week, the junta said Tun had spoken on behalf of an unofficial organisation that didn’t represent the country. Tun was appointed ambassador by the ousted government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The ambassador’s speech demonstrated that there is a strong anti-coup feeling within Myanmar’s elite circles. Protests by some police officers have also hinted at this.

The ambassador’s comments lend weight to Indonesia’s efforts to develop a more unified position on the coup at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on Tuesday. His criticisms should also encourage other South-East Asian countries to support Indonesia’s initiatives to limit violence against the protesters.

The Morrison government faces public pressure to take stronger action against the coup leaders and to secure the release of Sean Turnell, the Australian academic currently detained in Myanmar.

After this week’s violence, the Australian government should be considering targeted sanctions on the military. But, overall, it is taking the right long-term approach to the situation by quietly supporting Indonesia’s leadership and encouraging other ASEAN countries to take more responsibility for regional stability.


Trade independence

Last week, Joe Biden required US government agencies to conduct a 100-day review of the resilience of supply chains for a range of products – from drug ingredients to semiconductors.

This follows concerns about rising Chinese economic nationalism and the impact of businesses turning to “nearshoring” or domestic production in response to shortages caused by disruptions to global supply chains during COVID-19.

Last month, Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg ordered the Productivity Commission to conduct a similar review. Frydenberg said that Australia’s supply chains have held up relatively well during the pandemic but could be susceptible to future shocks.

The Morrison government has already taken action to boost economic self-reliance. Such measures have included funding a new vaccine factory in Melbourne, increasing scrutiny of foreign investment and identifying manufacturing sectors that should be nurtured.

However, a new report from the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute shows that Australians remain relatively positive about globalisation despite the pandemic. In two surveys conducted last year, more than 70 per cent of respondents thought globalisation was either “very good” or “fairly good”.

Examining supply-chain weaknesses is sensible after the challenges of the past year, but the Morrison government should be careful not to damage confidence in open trade and the capital markets on which modern Australia was built.


Asia’s next generation

Papua New Guinea’s founding prime minister, Michael Somare, died last week at the age of eighty-four. His death ended a notable record of leadership in the history of Australia’s closest neighbour and the wider Pacific region.

Somare was prime minister for three terms – a period spanning seventeen years – and served almost half a century in parliament. He also played an important role in the lead-up to Papua New Guinea’s achieving peaceful independence from Australia in 1975.

Along with former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, Somare was one of the last active regional leaders whose career began in the tumultuous decolonisation era.

Last year, Mahathir threw his country into turmoil by standing down as prime minister in an unsuccessful grab for fresh power. Now aged ninety-five, he seems unlikely to make a serious comeback.

Somare and Mahathir each knew Canberra well, and this familiarity often made them forthright and irascible diplomatic interlocutors.

A new generation of leaders is now in place – from Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama to India’s Narendra Modi. Though they are mostly democratically elected, they tend to be instinctive populist nationalists with authoritarian tendencies – and they typically have less regard for Australia’s views.

Somare’s generation will likely be missed.


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