Why Australia must do more to condemn Myanmar’s military coup

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It is 1988. I march with fellow students towards Yangon City Hall, chanting, “We want democracy!” A military truck full of soldiers stops at the front of the demonstration. Another truck, filled with soldiers holding machine guns, stops behind us. Shots are fired. Bullets fly past me. Many students are shot. People panic and run in all directions.

Right in front of me, I see a young woman shot in the chest fall to the ground. I carry her lifeless body, put it into one of the food and water supply vehicles, and run for my life. Myself and other students take shelter in a tea shop. I climb up into the ceiling. There are a few boxes and bags laying around and I try to cover my body with them. My clothes are stained with blood and sweat. I can’t stop myself from shaking.

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I hear soldiers coming into the tea shop, yelling and screaming, arresting other students. I stay in the ceiling for what feels like an eternity. Finally, the soldiers leave and some local people enter the tea shop and help me down from my hiding spot.

I was the only student that didn’t get arrested. A man washes the blood off my body, gives his clothes to me and offers me some tea and food at his house.

A troubled history

I grew up under the Myanmar military regime and know how brutal it is. Since 1962, when the army overthrew a democratic government and instituted a one-party socialist state, the military has cemented wealth and economic power for the generals, their families and financial interests.

That nightmare of 1988, 33 years ago, still haunts me. The 8888 Uprising, as it became known, was started by students in Yangon, and spread throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of people stood up and demanded an end to military rule and a return to democracy.

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For daring to ask for a better life, thousands were killed by the military. Thousands more fled as refugees. I now live in Melbourne, having migrated to Australia in 1995.

On returning to Myanmar 25 years later, I saw how my country had fallen behind the rest of the world even further.

In 2016, when Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party won a majority of seats in parliament, I went back to Myanmar again with my Australian wife and daughter. Finally, Myanmar was moving towards democracy.

But in February, things took a turn for the worse. Myanmar’s democratically elected government was deposed by the army, which declared a state of emergency and detained parliamentarians.

Since then, the military has killed more than 600 people in an effort to stop the enormous protests that have broken out demanding a return to democratic government. Children as young as five years old have been shot. Most people were shot in the head and chest by snipers.

Hearing of the coup in February, my first thought was, “I do not want anyone to experience anything like I did.”

How Australia can help

The Morrison government has not been shy in speaking out about human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has highlighted the “systematic abuse” of Uyghur Muslims in Chinese concentration camps. Mr Morrison himself has called on Beijing to allow the UN access into Xinjiang, and has offered extended visas to people fleeing China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

But so far, the Morrison government has done little to condemn the Myanmar military regime.

In the face of this violence threatening their loved ones and their homeland, Australia’s Myanmar expatriate community has not been idle. In March, Myanmar community representatives met with federal parliamentarians to explain the situation in Myanmar and urge government action. In April, representatives further laid out the case for a strong Australian response at a Senate hearing.

Democracy activists in Myanmar have also spoken out, at great personal risk. In May, nearly 400 civil society groups in Myanmar wrote an open letter calling on Marise Payne to abandon Australia’s continued inaction on Myanmar, which emboldens the terrorist military junta.

“Australia’s shameful inaction is discouraging to those who continue to stand for the protection and promotion of democracy and human rights, while emboldening the very perpetrators of heinous atrocity crimes,” the letter reads.

“The time for words and statements have long passed and action from Australia is long overdue.”

Yet despite these calls, Australia is lagging behind other Western governments. Far from staying silent, Australia should be using its status and leadership role in the region to call for strong action against the military regime.

If the Australian government can take a strong stance against human rights abuses in China, there is no reason it cannot do so in Myanmar.

Scott Morrison and Marise Payne must support sanctions against the Myanmar military, its leaders, and their business interests. The Australian parliament should also recognise Myanmar’s National Unity Government, the representative body of democratically elected Myanmar MPs. Australia must use its influence to push for an end to the violence, a return to civilian-led government, and the release of the many women and men who have been detained by the military since the coup.

If Australia and the world fail to act, I am afraid that many more young people will die and experience this terrible nightmare over and over. The time for action is now, before it is too late for my people.

Ko Saulsman, a member of Australia’s Burmese diaspora

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