Myanmar dictatorship: The New Zealand response

2:05 pm on 19 November 2022
Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on 2 March, 2021.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on 2 March, 2021. Photo: AFP

By Stan Jagger*, for the Asia Media Centre

Analysis - The military coup in February 2021 sent Myanmar into a spiral of violence and chaos, which continues today. While the Myanmar military continues its brutal repression of its own people, the outside world has in some ways moved on.

Isaac*, originally from Myanmar (Burma), now lives in Wellington. He is a member of the Karenni ethnic group from the east of the country.

He describes the on-going situation back in his homeland, "In Karenni state, that's destroyed by the civil war.

"So many of the people there need help, food and medicine. I'd like people in New Zealand to know it is a difficult time for Myanmar people here. We left relatives back home, so we all have relationships there. People should know the civil war there is getting worse every day."

Following a military coup in February 2021, the military junta crushed initial peaceful pro-democracy protests, killing hundreds and sparking armed resistance across the country.

Some representatives of the elected civilian government who escaped arrest at the coup's outset, alongside some allied ethnic and civil society representatives, formed the National Unity Government (NUG).

The NUG has attempted to bring the various resistance movements around the country together with a vision for a future federal democracy, to end 60 years of the military's dominance over the country's politics and economy.

Over the last year, resistance to the junta from people's defence forces and ethnic resistance organisations, some aligned with the NUG and some not, has gained ground across the country.

The military has responded with widespread atrocities often committed against the civilian population on a daily basis and precipitating a humanitarian crisis.

Isaac says he and others from Myanmar "just feel frustrated about the international community response".

Compared to the more recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which has received a lot of attention and action by some countries, the situation in Myanmar is viewed by the UN and international community, as an 'internal conflict - a civil war.

Myanmar soldiers patrol during a demonstration against the military coup outside the Central Bank in Yangon.

Myanmar soldiers patrol during a demonstration against the military coup outside the Central Bank in Yangon. Photo: Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto

This view prevents outside countries providing direct assistance to the NUG or resistance forces supported by much of the population.

However, the situation in Myanmar, on closer inspection, is of a brutal, elite-led military effectively behaving as an occupying force waging war on the majority of its own civilian population.

Here in New Zealand, members of the Myanmar community, some having fled earlier conflicts and political persecution, have organised via social media, community and religious groups to raise funds for striking workers and people displaced by conflict in Myanmar.

Auckland-based Myanmar activist, Tin Ma Ma Oo, outlines activities including "ongoing monthly fund raising, through food fairs, movie screenings and raffles".

Some fund raising also happens within local communities of different Myanmar ethnic groups such as Karenni, Chin, Kachin and Karen living in New Zealand.

As Isaac explains "the situation in Myanmar has been going on for a while. So often now in our community we do it house to house. Like today, some families they make food and then they sell it to raise funds."

Kyaw San*, a member of the Myanmar community in Auckland, points out "the Myanmar community within NZ is relatively small. The same people often organise, attend and donate to fundraising events. The pool of supporters and funds is limited."

Tin Ma Oo says: "In New Zealand we have former refugees, some are employed, some are not, and people face constant financial strain to contribute."

Additionally, Isaac acknowledges the mental strain of hearing from family and friends still in Myanmar about the worsening situation there. "Mentally, you can get quite depressed hearing about the situation."

As well as fundraising, the Burmese community in NZ has been active in advocacy to support democracy and humanitarian assistance for Myanmar.

"We need to do a bit more work for advocacy to raise awareness about the Myanmar situation, because the people in New Zealand, they only know a little about what's happening in Myanmar at the moment." says Isaac.

The Democracy for Myanmar (DFM) Working Group -NZ is an advocacy group formed by some Myanmar people now resident in New Zealand.

A person seen holding the portrait of Min Aung Hlaing in front of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) to pressure the US for more sanctions against the military regime in Myanmar on 7 March 2021.

Photo: AFP

They have raised petitions and made submissions to parliament select committees on the situation in Myanmar. Their activities include last year's petition asking the NZ government to recognise the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar. The petition received half a million signatures, although not all were from inside NZ.

Another DFM petition and submission to parliament requested that NZ accept 1000 Myanmar refugees with links to families in NZ for resettlement. Additionally, in September this year, 24 different Myanmar community groups in NZ sent a joint letter to parliament requesting that NZ support the formal acceptance of the NUG's representative at the United Nations, U Kyaw Moe Tun, who has continued occupying Myanmar's UN seat since the military coup deposed the elected-civilian government last year.

Despite the clearly very popular petition in support of NZ recognising Myanmar's NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), New Zealand does not make official statements on recognition of governments. Instead, "New Zealand's position is that recognition of a government is to be inferred from the nature and level of its dealings with that government".

In reality, this policy can leave scope for some ambiguity.

MFAT recently announced it would reopen its embassy in Yangon in junta-controlled Myanmar, but with an official representative below that of the status of an ambassador.

On the other hand, MFAT has also acknowledged that it "does engage with the NUG at officials level," and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, met online in October this year with the NUG's foreign minister Daw Zin Mar Aung.

Discussing the DFM petition to bring 1000 refugees from Myanmar to NZ for resettlement, Tin Ma Oo explains that later in 2022"when we found out about the Ukrainian temporary visas their process was completely different" (to that suggested by DFM). DFM made their original submission before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The DFM plan was eventually turned down, with the group making an oral submission to the select committee in late October this year.

"If they can't do the resettlement, then if they can give us a (temporary) visa like the Ukrainians then fine, we will find a way to help our family members," Tin Ma Oo says.

Regarding NZ's official humanitarian assistance to people in Myanmar, Kyaw San mentions the importance of "any aid NZ does provide not being sent to or through the military junta".

He also raises concerns about contributing funds via the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) regarding the AHA's willingness to work with the junta and ASEAN's focus on the ineffective 'five point consensus' plan it agreed with the junta in April last year.

The junta has largely ignored this plan to date, but despite this the ASEAN Leaders meeting in Cambodia last week persisted with it as a framework to address the situation.

Myanmar's Foreign Ministry subsequently issued a statement complaining that ASEAN was discriminating against it, and jeopardising ASEAN unity by interfering in its internal affairs.

Police fire water cannon at protesters as they demonstrate against the 1 February   military coup in the capital Naypyidaw, 9 February, 2021.

Photo: AFP

MFAT states that New Zealand's "Official Development Assistance-funded activities are not channelled through, or benefit, the military regime".

However, New Zealand's funding for humanitarian assistance in Myanmar also includes multilateral and regional organisations such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and ASEAN, which some critics point out are compromised by trying to work inside the country through official junta-controlled channels.

The junta often deliberately blocks aid to displaced people in areas where it is facing resistance.

As well as carefully considering issues around delivery of aid inside the country, Tin Ma Oo suggests the NZ government could assist people fleeing Myanmar to Malaysia and border areas of Thailand.

"The NZ government could provide humanitarian assistance in the Thai border area, working with the Thai government, ASEAN and UNHCR. Can we provide protection for these people? At least provide them with assistance with documentation, registering with the UN."

Another avenue for NZ aid iinto Myanmar is trusted local channels, suggests Kyaw San, "the NZ government [could] offer to match or double or more the funds the local Myanmar community in NZ is able to raise by itself."

He makes the point that "the Myanmar community in NZ knows and trusts the people and organisations where the money they raise ends up. It is an efficient system and funds can be there within two or three days of fund raising".

In outlining the activities and challenges the Myanmar community in New Zealand face to raise funds for, and awareness about, Myanmar, potential practical and moral support other New Zealanders could offer is frequently mentioned, Isaac says

"Let's do it together" says Isaac. "New Zealand people and the government can do a lot more to help out."

"Fundraising events would benefit from broader attendance and support from the population in New Zealand," Kwan San says.

Tin Ma Oo advocates for people to reach out if there is a Myanmar community in their area or town. "You can always participate and join the Myanmar events. Come and talk to the community members, give a little if you can. Together we can make a difference."

In terms of political action, she suggests "people in NZ could get their local MPs involved and interested in Myanmar issues".

"The more we are engaging with our politicians the more we can encourage our government to do the right thing."

*Names have been changed to protect their identity and that of relatives and friends in Myanmar.

*Stan Jagger has worked as a consultant with local education and research organisations in Myanmar over the last eight years. His doctoral research focused on international humanitarian norms and local civil society groups working with ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar. He writes social science teaching materials for non-formal, post-secondary institutions and universities and teaches politics and international relations.

*This article first appeared on the Asia Media Centre website.

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