Chris Sidoti: Junta leaders don’t respond to cooperation, only pressure via financial sanctions

July 20th, 2022  •  Category News
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Chris Sidoti quoted by ABC Australia.

Australian embassy spends $750,000 at luxury hotel linked to Myanmar’s military junta

By Erin Handley

20 July 2022

Since last year’s military coup in Myanmar, an Australian embassy has spent more than $750,000 at a hotel in Yangon with links to the country’s junta, FOI documents show.

In February 2021, Myanmar’s army overthrew the democratically elected government, citing election fraud, and has since violently repressed protests against the regime.

More than 2,000 people have been killed and more than 14,000 arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) released invoices under Freedom of Information disclosures to activist group Justice for Myanmar.

These documents detail spending at the luxury Lotte Hotel since the coup and have been provided exclusively to the ABC.

The entries include payments for hotel rooms and serviced apartments, in some cases costing taxpayers more than $60,000 for six months of luxury accommodation with a lake view.

One receipt among the documents shows $46 was spent on a chocolate cream cake. The ABC understands this was a personal expense not borne by the government.

The five-star Lotte Hotel in Yangon is built on land owned by the military’s Quartermaster-General’s Office, which has been sanctioned by the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

In imposing its sanction, the UK said the Quartermaster-General’s Office “plays a crucial role in procuring equipment for the Myanmar Armed Forces and is responsible for overseeing a campaign of violence and human rights violations across Myanmar”.

Lotte investors pay $US1.87 million ($2.71 million) annually in rent, which goes to the Ministry of Defence, according to Myanmar Investment Commission records.

“It is appalling that Australia is spending taxpayer’s money at the military-linked Lotte Hotel, ignoring the recommendations of the UN Fact-Finding Mission to end business with the Myanmar military,” Justice for Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung said.

“Lotte Hotel finances the Myanmar Army, paying rent to the Quartermaster-General’s Office, which buys the military’s bullets and bombs used in its indiscriminate attacks against the people of Myanmar. The Australian embassy must have known this.”

Chris Sidoti — a human rights law expert and UN specialist, who was part of the fact-finding mission to Myanmar — said the embassy’s expenditures go against the advice to financially isolate the military.

“Ultimately, the money does flow back to the military. And our recommendations were very specific that we need to cut the cash flow,” he said.

“We specifically identified land arrangements where the military somehow acquired land — often by forcibly taking it from the original owners — and then, with foreign investors, built hotels or shopping centres or ports on this land and attained income from it through rents. And this is precisely the situation here.”

Greens Senator Janet Rice — who has raised the issue of Commonwealth funds flowing to the military at Senate Estimates — said the FOI revelations were “shocking”.

“Not only has … the previous government not introduced sanctions, but now we find out that we have actually effectively been funding the war in Myanmar,” she said.

“It is just shocking and extraordinary and completely unforgivable.

“It is absolutely urgent that the new Australian government cuts its ties completely and utterly with any business arrangement that is resulting in money feeding the junta.”

DFAT says staff need secure accommodation

In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the ABC that it accommodates embassy staff in Yangon in “a small number of apartment complexes and houses assessed as being suitably secure”.

“There are currently limited secure accommodation options available beyond these facilities. Accommodation options are kept under constant review.

“The Australian government’s operations in Myanmar do not directly fund the Myanmar military.”

Mr Sidoti said the military’s control of the economy was once so extensive that it was difficult to find businesses that did not have army involvement, but that was no longer the case.

“The economy has diversified a lot in the intervening 20 years, and it is certainly now possible to stay in hotels that don’t have any military links at all,” he said.

Activists have long called for a boycott of the Lotte Hotel and other businesses profiting the army, also called the Tatmadaw.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) — the civilian government appointed by elected parliamentarians after the coup — recently criticised the Hong Kong government for planning a large event at the hotel, calling it “reprehensible”.

Dr Tun Aung Shwe — the NUG representative in Australia — said he was surprised by the FOI revelations, since the government downgraded its diplomatic ties with the junta earlier this year by not appointing an ambassador.

He said he thought that, by not appointing a new ambassador, embassy officials showed they were carefully considering their steps in Myanmar and trying not to engage in businesses linked to the military, but now he feared embassy money would filter to the Tatmadaw.

“We all know that the militia junta [is] going to use this kind of revenue to kill its own people,” he said.

When asked about calls to boycott the Yangon hotel, a spokesperson from Korea-based Lotte Hotels Group — which operates the site for Posco International Amara — said the hotel was aware of human rights issues and hoped the current situation would normalise soon.

The spokesperson said the rent for the hotel’s land site was “vested to Myanmar government’s national budget due to Myanmar’s financial law” and that the nature and beneficiaries of Myanmar’s national budget allocation were beyond the company’s fiduciary obligations.

Renewed calls for sanctions to force release of Sean Turnell

Australia has imposed no new sanctions on Myanmar’s military generals since its coup.

“After 18 months of the military coup, the country’s economy [has] totally collapsed. Over one million people are internally displaced due to the atrocities of the military junta,” Dr Tun said.

Last month, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, flagged possible sanctions against the junta.

Mr Sidoti said that was encouraging and there had been a need for sanctions since the beginning of the coup. So far, Australia has only suspended a small military cooperation program.

“But we’ve taken no other action at all. And I think the former government is rightly criticised for its inaction on Myanmar,” Mr Sidoti said.

He said sanctions needed to start with the Tatmadaw’s most senior generals — those most responsible for the coup — and extend to other members of the senior leadership.

He said that it was crucial to not forget about detained Australian economist Sean Turnell, an adviser to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is facing trial under the Official Secrets Act.

“After 18 months, there’s been no progress in Sean Turnell’s case. We have seen other foreigners who have been released, including a United States citizen, and the United States is imposing very significant sanctions,” Mr Sidoti said.

“I think that the lesson is that the Burmese generals are not interested in cooperation, that they only respond to pressure.

“Sean can’t be forgotten. Sean has to be the top Australian priority. But the policy adopted by the former government is a patent failure. And we need to move on to something that is more effective.”

Senator Rice echoed the calls for sanctions.

“This is a real, urgent call to the new government to immediately impose sanctions on the Myanmar junta, and everyone involved in the coup,” she said.