Sophia Sarkis knows what it feels like to live under military rule.
The 43-year-old grew up in Myanmar but is now an Australian citizen watching the deadly coup unfold in her birthplace.
Ms Sarkis believes the Australian government should be doing more to respond to the escalating violence and wants sanctions placed on relatives of Myanmar’s military officials living in Australia.
“By doing that, if the Australian government put sanctions on their daughters and sons they will feel pain of how citizens of Myanmar people are feeling,” she told SBS News.
Ms Sarkis says at least seven children of military leaders live in Australia. Others in the community estimate it could be in the hundreds.
She said people in Myanmar are “suffering and living with a limited amount of freedom and democracy”, and that there is anger over the relatives of military officials living with freedom in Australia.
“Their daughters and sons benefitted from their family. Without their family support, they wouldn’t be living a luxurious life in Australia and splashing money – the Myanmar people’s money.”
According to the Department of Home Affairs, there were 36,900 people born in Myanmar living in Australia at the end of June 2018. More than 7,300 were on temporary visas.
‘They need to feel it personally’
Geoff Cohn from Democracy for Burma, a pro-democracy campaign group, told SBS News that the imposition of sanctions would send a powerful message.
“Where sanctions hit is when they are aimed at senior military figures and their families,” he said. “They need to feel it personally.
“They need to know that their bank accounts are under threat and they need their children to be saying ‘Dad, what have you done? My studies have been terminated, I was doing so well in Australia’.”
Greens Senator Janet Rice is also urging the federal government to investigate any links to Myanmar military officials.
She said possible options for sanctions would be visa bans, revoking work rights and freezing financial assets.
“We’re not saying that these sanctions should be automatically imposed like a blanket against all family members,” Senator Rice added. “There needs to be an assessment as to whether these family members are directly connected to the coup leaders and whether it’s appropriate to apply sanctions to them.”
A familiar diplomatic lever
The Australian government has imposed sanctions on the relatives of Myanmar military officials in the past.
In July 2008, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith cancelled the student visa of Zin Mon Aye, daughter of senior Burmese military officer Brigadier General Zin Yaw.
In making his determination, Mr Smith said she was “a person whose presence in Australia is, or would be, contrary to Australia’s foreign policy interests”.
In 2007, the Australian government introduced a financial sanctions list, targeting more than 400 senior members of the Burmese regime and their associates, including close family members.
Zin Mon Aye wasn’t on the list, but her parents were. A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade submission stated: “As the child of the next in line for the position of Chief of Airforce, she fits within the definition of those targeted by our sanctions.”
Australia has already imposed sanctions and travel bans on five Myanmar generals accused of leading a vicious crackdown on the country’s Rohingya minority in 2017.
But community groups argue the list doesn’t include current junta leaders.
Australia has suspended military cooperation with Myanmar and redirected aid to non-government organisations in response to the coup.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne has expressed “grave concerns” over the escalating violence in Myanmar.
Asked about the prospect of sanctions at a doorstop earlier this month, she said the government is keeping its sanctions policy “under close review”.
“In relation to sanctions, we have of course previously sanctioned five senior members of the Tatmadaw,” she said. “We also have an embargo on any military sales to Myanmar, and we will keep our sanctions policy under close review.”
Complicating any further action on Myanmar by the federal government is the detention of Australian academic Sean Turnell, who was advising deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi on economic policy.
Canberra has called for his immediate release.
“We seek absolutely the cessation of any armed violence against unarmed, peaceful protesting civilians,” Ms Payne said. “And in everything we are doing, we are seeking Professor Turnell’s release.”
By contrast, the United States, United Kingdom and Canada have already acted to tighten sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders.
Last week, the US imposed sanctions on two adult children of Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing.
The US Treasury Department said they “have directly benefitted from their father’s position and malign influence”.
The sanctions ban American citizens from doing business with them or the six businesses they control.
Calls for financial links to be investigated
Human Rights Watch Myanmar Researcher Manny Maung says financial links between Australia and Myanmar should also be investigated.
“We should be looking at making sure that Australian businesses don’t have any ties with military conglomerates and their subsidiaries,” she told SBS News.
The military coup in Myanmar has seen 149 people killed in a crackdown by authorities against demonstrators since seizing power on 1 February, according to the United Nations.
The United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar Thomas Andrews recently told the UN Human Rights Council that global unified action is critical.
“The coordinated actions of nations working together will be the most effective actions,” he said. “Various governments have imposed various sanctions against the military junta in Myanmar. This is welcome, but sanctions will only be effective if they are unified and coordinated.”
He also wants sanctions on the military owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.
“Myanmar’s natural gas projects will generate an estimated $1 billion in revenue this year. Without sanctions, the illegal military junta of Myanmar will be able to use these funds to support their criminal enterprise and their attacks on innocent people.”
In a statement to SBS News, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it continues to keep its sanctions regime under “close review”.
“Australia maintains autonomous sanctions on Myanmar, including a long-standing arms embargo and targeted sanctions on a number of senior military officers. We continue to keep our sanctions regime under close review,” the statement said.
“Consistent with the approach we take on all sanctions regimes, we do not comment on whether or not any additional individuals are under consideration.”
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