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Why the Quad is Failing on Myanmar Human Rights

If the Quad is serious, as we hope it is, about having a ‘positive and ambitious agenda’ for the Indo-Pacific ‘to address the region’s most important challenges’, and not just being a counterweight to a potentially overreaching China, its members need to respond much more strongly to the region’s most ugly current violation of democracy and human rights.

It has now been over a year since the military coup in Myanmar and there is no end in sight for the suffering of its people. More than 1,500 people have died and nearly 450,000 have been displaced internally and across international borders since the coup. The economy has collapsed and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country. Myanmar is on the verge of being a failed state.

Sadly, the international community seems to have shifted its gaze away from this crisis. When the Quad foreign ministers – from the US, India, Japan and Australia – met in Melbourne last week (11 February) they did express grave concern about the situation in Myanmar and called for an end to violence, the release of all those arbitrarily detained, including foreigners, and unhindered humanitarian access. They also reaffirmed support for ASEAN efforts to seek a solution in Myanmar and called on the military regime to implement ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus urgently and return Myanmar swiftly to the path of democracy.

But actions in international affairs always count for more than words, and it is hard to believe that these sentiments alone will deliver anything concrete for the beleaguered citizens of that country. While the United States, with its European allies, has imposed a series of sanctions against the military leaders and their business interests, India, Japan and Australia all have been reluctant to apply any serious measures. And India has been one of the most active voices on the UN Security Council resisting it playing a more visible and assertive role.

All three have invoked, expressly or impliedly, national interest reasons to justify their reluctance. Australia is hesitant to take any steps that would undermine its efforts to secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi’s economic adviser Sean Turnell who is facing trial with her. But a year on, prudence is looking more and more like timidity, and further delay in taking firm action runs the risk of encouraging more hostage diplomacy.

India is focused on the need for cooperation from the Myanmar military in supressing insurgencies in its north-east. Japan is keen to protect its considerable business interests in Myanmar. And both are worried that falling out with Naypyitaw might cede geopolitical ground to China.

But national interests also involve maximising soft power and securing reputational advantage, and this means behaving decently on important issues of principle. For its part, the United States seems to be putting no diplomatic pressure on its partners for following narrow self-interest at the cost of the Quad’s moral authority.

ASEAN’s role will certainly be crucial in forging any kind of solution. Its Five-Point Consensus of April 2021, to which the Myanmar regime was a party, remains a key basis for potential progress. ASEAN made and implemented a principled decision to preclude attendance by regime leaders at its top meetings, but to date has struggled to advance its agenda. This is due both to Myanmar’s intransigence and to those who have helped its regime to withstand external pressure.

But the Myanmar crisis cannot be wholly outsourced to ASEAN to resolve, as the Quad would like. While every country needs to protect its national interests, governments must not turn a blind eye to atrocities and to blatant derogations from democracy, as these serve to protect and even encourage the transgressor.

Member states of the Quad should be forthright in putting pressure on the military regime, including by imposing strong national sanctions, and being willing to support strong enforcement action by the UN Security Council, given that the Myanmar crisis undeniably imperils peace and security in the region.

It is abundantly clear that the people of Myanmar, having had a taste of democratic rights and freedoms, do not wish to return to subservience to unelected military rulers. The rest of the world needs to come together to help them achieve that objective.

Helen Clark chairs the Global Leadership Foundation and is a former New Zealand prime minister. Gareth Evans is a former Australian foreign minister and president emeritus of the International Crisis Group.

This article was originally published with Helen Clark in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on 17 February 2022.