Myanmarese students currently in Australia should be offered a Hawke government-style amnesty to remain in Australia, as their homeland’s military continues to kill civilians on the streets, opposition and crossbench parliamentarians have urged.
Violence in Myanmar is worsening following a military coup on 1 February: more than 440 people have been killed by security forces, including children being shot dead, a street vendor set on fire in Mandalay, and soldiers randomly shooting at civilians in the street.
But Sunday – Armed Forces Day – marked the most violent day since the coup with more than 100 people killed, as the military escalated its brutal crackdown on protesters demanding the reinstatement of the democratically elected civilian government. Air strikes in the east of the country have driven thousands of members of the Karen ethnic minority fleeing into neighbouring Thailand.
Labor MP Peter Khalil has argued for a visa amnesty for Myanmarese students in Australia, in the style of the Hawke government’s amnesty for Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
In 1989, the then Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, broke down in tears during a televised address as he described the slaughter of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Hawke offered asylum to all of the 42,000 Chinese students in Australia.
Khalil told the Guardian a similar response to Myanmar’s escalating violence was justified.
“We should offer a Hawke-style amnesty to Myanmar students already in the country. And we must support these young people in Myanmar who are fighting to keep democracy alive.”
Calling for targeted sanctions against military leaders and businesses, Khalil said Australia’s current inaction against the regime was “strategic cowardice”.
“If we actually believe in the democratic principles we espouse, then we need to speak up, to morally stand with those protesters, and provide them the support and the advocacy they need, and and not legitimise the regime.”
The Greens senator Janet Rice has written to Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, also asking that Myanmarese in Australia be granted protection. There are currently more than 3,500 Myanmarese nationals in Australia on temporary visas, but there are also a number of stateless Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the country.
“The Australian government should also accept any political refugees from Myanmar, and provide support to any students from Myanmar who were studying in Australia and are now stranded here,” Rice said.
Rice called for Australia to impose targeted sanctions on military leaders who took part in the coup, the junta’s broader economic entities, as well as “any immediate family members of military leaders who have benefited directly from the coup, including any immediate family members who may be here in Australia”.
The Guardian understands a visa amnesty or blanket extension on humanitarian grounds is being considered by the ministry of home affairs and by Dfat, working on a policy akin to those already announced by the US and South Korea.
Australia has come under increasing pressure to impose targeted sanctions against senior military officials and military-run businesses. It remained in cooperation with the Myanmar military up until this month, even after the Tatmadaw’s genocidal “clearance operations” against the ethnic minority Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2017.
As violence escalated this month, Payne condemned the military’s “horrific use of lethal force”.
“These latest events are a deeply concerning escalation in violence,” she said. “We call urgently on the Myanmar security forces to exercise restraint, uphold the rule of law and allow the Myanmar people to exercise their rights to peaceful protest.”
But while the government has said it will consider imposing a new suite of targeted sanctions, it has not confirmed these.
A parliamentary subcommittee will host a one-day inquiry into the military coup next month, examining the effectiveness of the steps taken by Australia in response, and what additional measures the government should take.
Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian: “As the bodies pile up of protesters shot in the streets, Australia should be taking concrete measures to respond.
“The civil disobedience movement in Myanmar is happening because protesters know if they can cripple the economy, they can cripple the military.
“The least Australia can do is to send a strong message to the Tatmadaw that it won’t trade with military-owned conglomerates or help to line the pockets of generals responsible for these abuses. The only way that Myanmar’s generals will back off is if the costs of staying in power are made too great to bear.”