Why Has Australia Suddenly Gone Quiet on Myanmar?

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Why Has Australia Suddenly Gone Quiet on Myanmar?

In recent months, the Albanese government has been selective about where, when, and how it raises the country’s troubles.

Why Has Australia Suddenly Gone Quiet on Myanmar?

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong delivers a speech in Adelaide, Australia, June 29, 2023.

Credit: Twitter/Senator Penny Wong

Indonesia assumed the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the beginning of January and quickly implemented a diplomatic change in the regional bloc’s approach to the ongoing conflict in Myanmar. This change is encapsulated by what Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi recently called “quiet diplomacy,” which involves engagements with the various parties involved in the crisis, including the military junta (State Administration Council, or SAC), the shadow civilian National Unity Government, and some of the country’s ethnic armed organizations. This engagement is purposely “quiet” and done without fanfare in the hope of building trust via what Retno has labeled “non-megaphone diplomacy.”

Jakarta’s quiet diplomacy represents the latest diplomatic attempt to coax the SAC into implementing ASEAN’s 2021 Five-Point Consensus, which called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and dialogue among concerned parties, something which is intended to lead politics in Myanmar back to its pre-coup environment. Criticism of the implementation and enforcement of the Five-Point Consensus has been abundant, and questions have begun to emerge regarding the feasibility of Indonesia’s quiet approach.

Despite the disappointment toward ASEAN’s approach to the crisis, acknowledged by Indonesian president Joko Widodo at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May, Australia appears on board in supporting Indonesia’s idea of quiet diplomacy. This has been made clear by Australia’s silence regarding recent atrocities committed by the SAC, the withdrawal of Myanmar as a discussion topic in government media releases, and its restraint when it comments on the crisis in bilateral and multilateral fora.

Australia did not officially condemn the military junta following its inexcusable airstrike on Pazigyi Village, in Sagaing Region’s Kanbalu Township, on April 11, which killed 186 civilians, including more than 40 children. The attack prompted international backlash from the United States, the European Union, Germany, the United Nations, and international human rights groups. The absence of an Australian condemnation is significant because the attack itself resulted in the largest single-day casualty since the February 2021 coup, and Australia has previously been forthright and consistent in condemning the junta for its actions. For example, two weeks prior to the airstrike, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) issued a statement expressing its concern regarding the new Political Party Registration Law on March 29. A month earlier, DFAT released a statement on the second anniversary of the coup and announced targeted sanctions the same day in response to human rights violations by the SAC. In July of last year, DFAT also released a statement condemning the junta over its execution of four pro-democracy activists.

Australia was also far more consistent in raising concerns about Myanmar in its external bilateral engagements earlier this year and throughout 2022. For instance, the crisis was mentioned at the Australia-Japan leaders meeting in October 2022, and the Australia-U.S. and Australia-U.K. Ministerial Consultations on December 6, 2022, and February 2, 2023, respectively. Australia and France also raised their concerns during their Foreign and Defense Ministerial Consultations on January 30 of this year. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi also briefly referenced Myanmar in their joint statement following their first annual summit in early March.

However, Australia has been more restrained over the last several months when discussing the crisis with its counterparts. For instance, Albanese did not publicly mention the Myanmar crisis with New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on either of the latter’s two trips to Australia in February and April of this year. Notably, following the Australia-New Zealand leaders’ meeting last July, the joint statement urged the SAC to implement the Five Point Consensus. Further, Australia and the U.S. did not reference Myanmar in their joint statement that followed the leaders’ meeting on the sidelines of the G-7 Summit in May.

Although Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have continued to discuss Myanmar with their Southeast Asian counterparts during meetings in recent months, it is notable that they haven’t been raised with all ASEAN members. For instance, the joint statement from the Australia-Singapore annual leaders’ meeting in June dedicated a considerable paragraph on Myanmar and acknowledged the Pazigyi airstrikes and the attack on an ASEAN humanitarian convoy in Shan State in May. However, Albanese did not raise the crisis with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh during his first official visit from June 3-4, days after visiting Singapore.

Similarly, Wong and her Malaysian counterpart Zambry Abdul Kadir noted their “serious concern” about the Myanmar crisis in their joint statement following their annual Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on May 5. Yet, expressions of concern were not included in the joint statement between Wong and Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo following their Ministers’ meeting on May 18.

Unsurprisingly, Australia and Indonesia spoke of their “strong support” for the central role of ASEAN in addressing the Myanmar crisis during the Australia-Indonesia Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting in early February of this year. This call was reiterated by Albanese and President Joko Widodo during their annual leaders’ meeting on July 4, albeit their public comments on Myanmar were more discreet and truncated than those made at the Defense and Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

It may seem like Australia is raising the Myanmar crisis on an ad-hoc basis with its Southeast Asian counterparts. However, Australia selectively raising the issue with Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia reflects the fact that these three countries have been at the forefront of ASEAN in forging a policy response to the crisis – no matter how flawed it may be – while also being the most vocal in their displeasure and frustration with the SAC. In this sense, Australia’s choice to speak about Myanmar only with these nations this year is not coincidental, but intentional.

Indeed, this should come as no surprise. Australia has continually promoted “ASEAN centrality” when canvassing its regional foreign policy priorities and has sought a deeper understanding and closer ties with ASEAN over the past twelve months. By supporting Indonesia’s quiet diplomacy, Australia is signaling that it can back up its rhetorical support for the concept by acting in good faith and allowing an ASEAN-owned-and-created diplomatic initiative to address an ASEAN problem. Additionally, adhering to quiet diplomacy burnishes Australia’s credentials as a reliable and trusted partner, a notion that had come under question somewhat following the AUKUS agreement in 2021.

Australia should, however, consider what comes after quiet diplomacy and the end of Indonesia’s chairmanship, which will pass to Laos following the 43rd ASEAN Summit in September. It is of some concern that Laos has shown that it is willing to accommodate the Myanmar junta and has offered legitimacy to the regime, most recently by sending senior figures from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs to a meeting on Myanmar hosted by Thailand and attended by representatives from the junta.

Although Indonesia’s quiet diplomacy initiative may not bear the desired fruit by the end of its chairmanship, it has been an attempt at creating the conditions that could lead to a breakthrough in the now two-and-a-half-year-old crisis. To reinforce the notion that Australia is a reliable partner, and to do right by the people of Myanmar, who continue to endure the junta’s tyranny, Australia should push for Laos to continue Jakarta’s efforts during its chairmanship, or work with ASEAN to find new solutions to the country’s crisis if Laos chooses to discontinue quiet diplomacy. With Indonesia holding its national election in February of next year, which could temporarily take its focus away from Myanmar, Australia should, at a minimum, encourage Laos to keep the Myanmar issue front of mind for regional policymakers.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Singapore will hold its national election next year. Its next general election has not yet been scheduled, but is due to be held by 2025.