COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins reassures Kiwis in Myanmar amid violent protests

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is reassuring Kiwis in Myanmar they will get spots in managed isolation if they need to return to New Zealand, as violent protests engulf the country. 

There are currently 79 New Zealanders in Myanmar registered on the SafeTravel website and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) is providing assistance to them. 

"The biggest logistical hurdle for people in Myanmar will be getting travel back to New Zealand," Hipkins told reporters on Thursday, as the Southeast Asian nation remains closed off to the world. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced changes to New Zealand's relationship with Myanmar last month after the military took control of the country. 

"We do not recognise the legitimacy of the military-led government and we call on the military to immediately release all detained political leaders and restore civilian rule," Mahuta said at the time. 

"As a result of these concerns, New Zealand is suspending all high-level political and military contact with Myanmar."

An Al Jazeera video of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing that New Zealand would suspend ties with Myanmar has racked up more than 9000 likes on Facebook.

Violent protests have broken out across Myanmar, with reports of at least 40 people killed for speaking out against the military, who human rights groups say have opened fire on crowds. 

"Sad news of bloody clashes and loss of life," Pope Francis, who visited Myanmar in 2017, said on Twitter: "I appeal to the authorities involved that dialogue may prevail over repression."

Hipkins says Kiwis in Myanmar will be welcomed home if they can get here. 

"We do have an emergency allocation process where people who need to return home for a desperate situation, so if they cannot remain where they are because it's a genuine emergency, we have an allocation there and we can accommodate people in that situation very quickly," he said. 

"If that's the case for people in Myanmar where they just need to leave and they just need to get back to New Zealand, we'll make sure that they can get managed isolation."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

A spokesperson for MFAT told Newshub New Zealanders in Myanmar have been advised to avoid any unnecessary internal travel for the time being and to monitor media reporting for more information.

"Anyone who is concerned for their safety in the current environment has been advised to consider departing Myanmar by commercial means," the spokesperson said. 

"New Zealanders who wish to depart Myanmar can apply to access commercial relief and special flights through direct contact with airlines."

Mahuta has directed that New Zealand's aid programme to Myanmar should not include projects that are delivered with, or benefit, the military. The Government also imposed a travel ban on Myanmar's military leaders.

New Zealand joined other countries calling for a special session at the United Nations Human Rights Council on Myanmar to raise our concerns regarding the military coup and the impact on human rights.

Protesters in Myanmar.
Protesters in Myanmar. Photo credit: Getty

"The rule of law and the democratic will of the people of Myanmar must be respected," Mahuta said. "Along with our partners in the international community, New Zealand is closely monitoring the situation in Myanmar."

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a virtual meeting of foreign ministers on Tuesday on Myanmar. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was re-elected at the recent election. 

The military echoed sentiments by former US President Donald Trump that the election was compromised by voter fraud, but Myanmar's election commission says it was fair.

The G7 group of nations - the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Italy and Japan - as well as the United Nations Security Council, have condemned the military's seizure of power.