Australian Outlook

In this section

Episode 71: Myanmar - Tragedy, Complexity, and Power

19 Apr 2021
By Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA and Dr Darren Lim
Protests in Myanmar 2021, Photographer MgHla (aka) Htin Linn Aye, sourced from Wikimedia Commons,

Also discussed in this episode: the humanitarian crisis in Papua New Guinea after a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 and what makes the defence minister portfolio so uniquely challenging for the newly appointed Peter Dutton.

The primary focus of this week’s episode is the terrible situation in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw, the country’s military, cements its coup with increasing levels of violence. Allan’s first posting was to the country and so he leads off with a personal reflection of great sorrow. Turning to analysis, what was the cause of the conflict and to what extent did the country’s civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, play a role? Is the military sufficiently powerful that it will inevitably be a major player in Myanmar’s political future, analogous to the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Assad regime in Syria? Does Myanmar need a Nehru-like figure?

Turning to the international dimension, what are the policy challenges facing Washington, Beijing and New Delhi? Is this an opportunity for China to display regional security leadership, and what is the place of sovereignty in this discussion? Is this an existential crisis for ASEAN? Darren is intrigued by elite debates on the issue within Singapore, which leads to a wider discussion of ASEAN’s balancing act between maintaining unity and upholding the principle of non-interference, versus newer interests in shaping the emerging regional order. Turning to Australia—what are our interests and can we somehow play a positive force? Allan raises a curious question regarding whether the Australian government’s policy is to recognise only states, or whether it can recognise specific governments, as it did with Venezuela in 2019.

The discussion then moves to Papua New Guinea and its devastating Covid-19 outbreak. Darren describes some of the factors that distinguish this particular humanitarian crisis, and asks Allan what the balance is for Australia between moral imperative and strategic interest. Darren wonders whether pandemic disinformation on social media might be a spark to begin a discussion of broader social responsibility for companies like Facebook.

Finally, Peter Dutton is the new Defence Minister. Darren asks Allan to reflect on the unique challenges of the portfolio, and why so many of Dutton’s predecessors seem to have had limited success.

We thank AIIA intern Dominique Yap for research and audio editing, and thanks also to Rory Stenning for composing our theme music.

Relevant Links

List of insurgent groups in Myanmar, Wikipedia (Accessed 14 April 2021):

Bilahari Kausikan, “ASEAN’s alibi diplomacy must be allowed to take effect in Myanmar”, Nikkei Asia, 3 April 2021:

Tweet from James Crabtree (@jamescrabtree) on Tommy Koh’s facebook post, 7 April 2021:

Gareth Evans, “The Responsibility to Protect the People of Myanmar”, Australian Outlook, 8 April 2021:

Donald Rothwell, “The barely-noticed momentous change to Australian foreign policy”, Lowy Interpreter, 14 February 2019:

Health Minister Hon. Jelta Wong on the Covid crisis in Papua New Guinea | Aus-PNG Network Event, Lowy Institute, 1 April 2021:

Tweet by Andrew Davies (@defence_wonk) on Peter Duton to Defenec, 24 March 2021:

Peter Dutton, “Joint training Exercise in the Indian Ocean”, Media release, 5 April 2021:

The Bureau (TV Series), SBS On Demand:

Darren Lim, “Geoeconomics and National Security”, ANU Course:

“Happy birthday to Albert Hirschman” (twitter thread by @oliverwkim), 7 April 2021: