Australia has suspended its defence cooperation programme with Myanmar amid concern about the “escalating violence and rising death toll,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said as the country’s military steps up its crackdown on enormous protests against its coup last month.
Myanmar was plunged into turmoil after the army detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and officials from her National League for Democracy party on February 1 and seized control of the country. The coup has triggered a national Civil Disobedience Movement and mass protests in which dozens have been killed.
“We continue to strongly urge the Myanmar security forces to exercise restraint and refrain from violence against civilians,” Payne said.
Australia’s bilateral defence ties with Myanmar’s military are restricted to non-combat areas such as English-language training which have continued even after the brutal crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017 that led hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh.
“Australia has finally ended a training programme it should never have started in the first place,” Anna Roberts, the executive director of the London-based Burma Campaign, said in a statement. “Twelve more countries are still engaged in training and cooperation with the Burmese military. Countries providing training to the Burmese military have sided with the military, which is shooting peaceful protesters. They cannot claim non-interference in Burma’s internal affairs when they are helping one side. A military which is killing civilians.”
The Burma Campaign said that the 12 countries still providing training to Myanmar’s military include China, India, Pakistan and Ukraine. Campaigners are calling for a complete arms embargo on the country.
Australia will also redirect immediate humanitarian needs to the mostly Muslim Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, Payne said on Monday and bypass Myanmar government bodies.
“We have also looked at the development programme and development support that we are providing and redirected that with an absolute focus on the immediate needs of some of the most vulnerable and poor in Myanmar which is one of the poorest countries in ASEAN,” Payne was quoted as saying by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Australia said it would continue to demand the immediate release of Sean Turnell, an economist and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, authorities said. Turnell has been detained with limited consular access since the coup.
Myanmar’s main trade unions have called for a general strike from Monday, following huge protests on Sunday. The demonstrations triggered a harsh response with the police and security forces using tear gas, stun guns and live bullets to break up the crowd, according to videos shared by local residents.
Soldiers were also deployed to public buildings around the country, sparking confrontations, the Myanmar Now news agency reported.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is tracking arrests, says 1,790 people had been detained since the coup as of March 7. A total of 1,472 remain in custody.