As the governments of Russia and Myanmar face international condemnation over human rights abuses, New Zealand is facing criticism for working alongside their defence officials in the international arena

New Zealand defence officials are attending international meetings with counterparts from militaries allegedly involved in crimes against humanity, leading to claims the Government is legitimising their regimes.   

Critics say that New Zealand’s engagement with Myanmar and Russia, in defence and security forums organised by the Asean grouping of Southeast Asian nations, provides an image boost to both countries as they face increased international isolation. 

Both Myanmar and Russia have drawn global censure due to their recent aggressions. In March, a United Nations report claimed Myanmar’s military had engaged in “systematic and widespread human rights violations and abuses” following a coup in early 2021, while  Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the imposition of sanctions by a wide range of countries including New Zealand. 

At a weekend meeting of Apec trade ministers in Bangkok, Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor joined his counterparts from Japan, the United States, Australia and Canada in walking out as Russian economic development minister Maxim Reshetnikov was about to deliver his opening remarks.

Earlier this year, New Zealand said it would not recognise Myanmar’s involvement in the RCEP trade deal due to its concerns about the military regime’s actions, while Nikkei Asia reported earlier this month that Aotearoa had privately indicated it would not replace its ambassador to the country after his term ended.

But last week, New Zealand defence officials and military personnel took part in the Asean defence senior officials’ meeting in Cambodia alongside counterparts from Russia and Myanmar.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman told Newsroom she viewed the meetings with Myanmar’s junta as “actively legitimising” the regime which seized power and subsequently crushed popular protests against its actions.

On meeting with Russian officials, Ghahraman  said: “What are we meeting them about? Are we going to not pressure them to stop committing atrocities, are we going to just wash our hands?”

However, National Party foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee said he was comfortable with New Zealand attending such meetings, provided they were at an official-to-official level and did not involve political counterparts.

“Asean is bigger than Myanmar: it’s important that we have a voice at the table, and it’s more important that we pick up any new information about what’s happening in the region,” Brownlee said.

“Since the Myanmar military’s illegal attempted coup, the junta has waged a campaign of terror against the people of Myanmar, yet illegitimate junta representatives have continued to participate in Asean defence cooperation with New Zealand.”
– Yadanar Maung, Justice for Myanmar spokesman

The incident is only the latest example of security officials from New Zealand being present at such events. Previously, representatives of Wellington had attended Asean meetings where Myanmar had shared a presentation on its efforts to combat terrorism – a term it has deployed to dismiss representatives of the legitimately elected government it removed in the 2021 power grab.

Myanmar has used its attendance at these events in its official propaganda, including in the state mouthpiece newspaper ‘the Global New Light of Myanmar’ in which a Kiwi official was pictured alongside other attendees on a virtual call.

“That’s exactly why New Zealand officials should not be engaging with Myanmar, and junta officials of what is an illegitimate government. We’re actively legitimising a government that has come to power through violence,” Ghahraman said.

Records seen by Newsroom also show that Aotearoa hosted a meeting with Asean defence ministers during Myanmar’s violent crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in 2017, a wave of violence that the United States this year characterised as a genocide

The campaign group Justice for Myanmar told Newsroom New Zealand’s participation in these events were the latest in a series of engagements with the Myanmar military over recent years “not only through meetings but also joint military exercises”. During this time, Myanmar’s military “has committed genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity with total impunity”, group spokesman Yadanar Maung said. 

“Since the Myanmar military’s illegal attempted coup, the junta has waged a campaign of terror against the people of Myanmar, yet illegitimate junta representatives have continued to participate in Asean defence cooperation with New Zealand,” Maung said. 

These high-level events “not only legitimise the junta but are likely to make Asean complicit in its international crimes, through sustained practical assistance and support.”

Maung encouraged Wellington to boycott future meetings as a sign of their support for human rights.

Jacinda Ardern, pictured at an Apec leaders’ summit, says New Zealand must be in the room at multilateral events involving Russia to clearly articulate its view against the war in Ukraine. Photo: Supplied

In response to questions from Newsroom, a Ministry of Defence official said: “We respect Asean’s role as convenor of this process. We cannot unilaterally make decisions on how other members participate in these forums.”

“When engaging in this forum, New Zealand condemns President Putin’s unjustified and illegal attack on Ukraine and the actions of Myanmar’s military government,” the official said.

“We continue to participate in this process in order to speak directly on these issues of concern to New Zealanders.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta told Newsroom the Government took part in Asean-led forums to promote regional peace, prosperity and stability, and participated “in a constructive manner to strengthen international rules, norms, and practices”.

“We assert our views in this context, including our stance on Myanmar and the global impact of Russia’s aggression and war on Ukraine.”

While New Zealand could not make decisions about which other members took part in the forums, it could state its view about the appropriateness of their participation and had done so in relation to Russia, Mahuta said.

New Zealand had also supported the Asean-led appointment of a special envoy and “five point consensus” to address concerns with the situation in Myanmar.

Responding to a question from Newsroom about the decision to walk out of the Apec meeting, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said countries were “choosing to send a very clear message” regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it was still important for New Zealand to participate in international meetings.

“I’ve heard there have been discussions over whether or not decisions are made to boycott meetings where there is Russian attendance: our view is that being in the room to clearly articulate a view and send our strong condemnation, if Russia is present there as well, is really important,” Ardern said.

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