Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar met alleged war criminal and coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on Wednesday, in a meeting the junta claims discussed “enhancement of cooperation” between the two countries. Pictures published by the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper show Australia’s ambassador, Andrea Faulkner, and military attache, meeting with the coup leader in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing led the Myanmar military’s pogrom against the ethnic minority Rohingya in 2017, which killed more than 25,000 people and forced more than 700,000 to flee the country, and he engineered a military coup in February 2021, later declaring himself prime minister. Min Aung Hlaing has been recommended by the UN for investigation and prosecution for war crimes and genocide, and personally sanctioned by the US, EU, UK and Canada, but not by Australia. Advocates for Myanmar’s elected government argued the meeting between the coup leader and the representative of a western democracy, would be used as a propaganda tool by the junta to legitimise its unlawful control of Myanmar. Justice for Myanmar’s Yadanar Maung described Australia’s decision to take the meeting as “an act of betrayal” of the Myanmar people. Manny Maung, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the meeting was “deeply unacceptable” and “only serves to lend credibility to a military junta that is accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity”. The meeting has been prominently reported by Myanmar’s state-controlled media, in Burmese, and in English for international audiences. Several pictures of the meeting have been published, including one of the Senior General presenting the ambassador with a painting as a gift. The regime reported that Wednesday’s meeting, in the parlour of Min Aung Hlaing’s office, discussed “the further maintenance of good relations between two countries, enhancement of cooperation in various sectors between governments and peoples of both countries”. It described the CRPH, the elected exiled Myanmar parliament, and the NUG, the exiled National Unity Government , as “terrorists”. Before Senate estimates on Thursday, Katrina Cooper, the deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was questioned by Greens senator Janet Rice over the junta’s reports that the meeting discussed “cooperation in various sectors” and “maintenance of good relations”. Cooper would not comment on the junta’s characterisation of the meeting, but said there were no areas of cooperation with the junta and that the ambassador “asked for a number of things”. “She reiterated Australia’s concern about the situation in Myanmar, she urged the Myanmar military to cease violence, release arbitrary detainees, engage in dialogue and ensure unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance.”
The meeting between Australia’s ambassador, who is finishing her posting, and Min Aung Hlaing on Wednesday was one of at least eight meetings or phone calls Australian diplomats and defence officials have had with junta representatives since the coup last February, estimates heard. Rice asked if engaging with the junta risked legitimising its control of the country. Cooper defended Australia’s position, arguing its “limited” engagement with the regime “give us an opportunity to speak directly to the regime”, including to call for an end to violence and grant humanitarian access. “We don’t consider that the engagement we’ve had to date legitimises the current regime.” But Yadanar Maung said the military junta was a terrorist organisation and ‘Australia’s continued engagement with it was “an act of betrayal to its own democracy”. She said the meeting would be used to legitimise the military’s forcible seizure of control of the country. “The latest meeting has given fodder for the junta’s domestic propaganda and is part of a pattern of complicity that stands out from Australia’s democratic allies. Australia has still failed to impose any targeted sanctions on the Myanmar junta and military businesses in response to the coup attempt and the military’s ongoing atrocities, and Australia’s Future Fund continues to invest in companies doing business with the military, including an arms supplier.”
Analysis prepared by the Australian Council for International Development (Acfid) shows the US, the UK, Canada and the EU have imposed sanctions against a total of 196 individuals and 172 entities, including subsidiaries, as of February. The chief executive of Acfid, Marc Purcell, said Australia’s failure to impose any additional sanctions against the generals since the coup 14 months ago was “increasingly glaring” compared with actions taken by other like-minded countries. Cooper said the government weighed up “a number of important considerations” when deciding on possible sanctions, including consular matters such as the ongoing “arbitrary detention” of the Australian academic, Prof Sean Turnell. Turnell was an economic adviser to the democratically elected Myanmar government.