Three finger salute and Myanmar flag

Defending human rights in post-coup Myanmar

1 December 2022
Insights on a country in crisis under junta rule
SSEAC convened two panel discussions in November to explore the economic and human rights dimensions to the evolving crisis in Myanmar.

The military coup in Myanmar in February 2021 plunged the country into crisis. After seizing power from a democratically elected government, the military junta met nationwide protests with brutal force, arresting, torturing and killing its perceived opponents. The violence sparked an armed uprising, while the country’s economy, health and education systems have teetered on collapse.

To explore the evolving economic and human rights dimensions to the post-coup crisis in Myanmar, in late November, SSEAC convened two panel events, bringing together activists, academics, legal and policy professionals.

The first event, held on campus and online, focused on human rights and included guest speakers Manny Maung from Human Rights Watch; Tun Aung Shwe, the National Unity Government of Myanmar representative in Australia; and Chris Sidoti, member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar. The discussion was moderated by Htwe Htwe Thein, an Associate Professor at Curtin University.

Speakers at the Myanmar event

Tun Aung Shwe began by explaining the origins and operation of the National Unity Government in Myanmar, the parallel body established following the coup in opposition to the military regime. Manny Maung discussed the military’s culture of impunity and its crackdown on dissent, including its lethal response to well-organised resistance in the industrial area of Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar township in March last year.

Chris Sidoti explained the findings of the UN Fact-Finding Mission’s 2018 report on the military’s human rights abuses in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States, of which he was co-author. He referred to the military’s longstanding Bamar Buddhist nation-building project and the subordination of ethnic minorities, while also remarking that the “long-standing historic attempt to divide the people of Myanmar has collapsed, because the actions of the military have been so outrageous.”

Htwe Htwe Thein pointed out that the military evidently hadn’t anticipated the level of resistance to the coup, the formation of such bodies as the National Unity Government and the collective actions of the Civil Disobedience Movement.

The wide-ranging discussion continued, including with questions from the audience, and touched on the strengths and weaknesses of the National Unity Government, the illegitimacy of any forthcoming elections held under military auspices, the role of targeted sanctions, and the Australian government’s response to the coup, which has been lacking to date. 

Human rights and business in Myanmar

Our second event focused on the role of international business in Myanmar following the coup, and the situation facing workers and labour movements in the country. Held online, the panel included Khaing Zar Aung, president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar; Ben Hardman of EarthRights International, and Clancy Moore of Transparency International Australia. The session was moderated by Michael Gillan, Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia. 

The speakers on Zoom

Khaing Zar Aung explained the challenges affecting the garment sector before and after the coup, including the present lack of any freedom for workers to organise or speak out about labour rights. She stressed that big international brands should not simply cut and run, but divest from the country responsibly while continuing to support workers.  

Ben Hardman outlined the military’s history of exploiting gas revenues, the role of state enterprises, and the complicity of companies that continue to make payments to a military junta that is committing atrocities. He cited the “disinformation” put forward by some companies who claim they are unable to exit the country.

Clancy Moore explained how the mining sector has traditionally been a lucrative revenue source for the military, and said issues of conflict, corruption and a lack of transparency had been “turbo-charged” since the coup. He raised the role of Australian companies and noted that “there is no ethical way to be doing business in Myanmar right now.”

The event concluded with the panelists responding to questions from the audience on the rhetoric of human rights diligence, the form of international sanctions that should be implemented, and the responsible divestment of international brands from the country.

Across both panel events, our expert speakers shared important insights on a country that is facing a human rights and humanitarian crisis under junta rule. Catch up with both talks on our YouTube and Facebook pages.

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