Burmese junta threatens to downgrade relations with Australia for a snub

Myanmar’s junta on Thursday threatened to downgrade diplomatic ties with Australia after saying Canberra would not replace its recently deceased ambassador to the military-ruled country.

Western governments have led international criticism of last year’s coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration and sparked a violent crackdown on dissent, with some imposing sanctions and meeting with prominent figures in the opposition.

On Monday, Australian media reported that Canberra will not replace Ambassador Andrea Faulkner, who completed her term in April, and will instead send a senior civil servant to act as Chargé d’Affaires.

Canberra had communicated the decision to the junta, the regime’s foreign ministry permanent secretary, Chan Aye, told a news conference on Thursday.

“In response, we are also working on having a Chargé d’Affaires head the Myanmar embassy in Australia,” he said, without specifying whether Myanmar would recall its ambassador or downgrade his status.

AFP has contacted the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for comment.

A meeting between outgoing Faulkner and junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in April was criticized by rights groups as legitimizing the military.

He also came with Australian academic Sean Turnell being held in a junta court where he is charged with breaking the country’s Official Secrets Act and faces 14 years in prison.

Chan Aye also said Britain’s recent downgrading of its mission in the country was “unacceptable”. Peter Vowles was appointed ambassador last July but is now charge d’affaires, according to the UK Foreign Office website.

Vowles – who is currently outside Myanmar – would not be allowed to return to the country due to his current status, Chan Aye said.

Former president and ousted head of state Win Myint is currently on trial in a junta court alongside Suu Kyi.

Recently arrived ambassadors from India and Saudi Arabia presented their credentials to Min Aung Hlaing, according to reports in state media.

Any downgrading of ties by Canberra would not be unexpected, former Australian ambassador to Myanmar Christopher Lamb told AFP, adding that several other countries had not appointed new ambassadors since the coup.

“You have to judge whether this decision will affect Sean Turnell’s situation and they have probably come to the conclusion, which I think is reasonable, that it makes no difference.”

Shunned by Western governments, the junta has turned to traditional allies, including Russia and China, for support.

He called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “justified”, backing its main ally and arms supplier.

The junta is also increasingly isolated on the international scene, with Cambodian leader Hun Sen the only foreign leader to visit since the coup.