The plight of the Rohingya people in the wake of the crackdown by Burma’s military has made headlines around the world.
Over half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled the rape, systematic arson and genocide in their home state of Rakhine, about half crossing the northern border into Bangladesh. The military has deployed illegal landmines on this same border stretch, with casualties already reported.
Burma’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has disgraced herself, refusing to criticise the military or even use the word Rohingya.
The crackdown is driven by a combination of entrenched prejudice against Muslims and minorities by the military and Buddhist elite and by demand for land, especially after Burma opened up to foreign investment in 2011.
The government offers this “development” land to various foreign corporations for infrastructure, agriculture, tourism and resource extraction. The Rohingya and many other minorities have lost homes, livelihoods and lives in the process.
Despite the horrific reports, little is being done to aid the Rohingya. Bangladesh has said that they will only offer temporary shelter to Rohingya refugees, whom they consider “illegal immigrants”.
US President Donald Trump’s calls for the violence to end ring hollow, as he has halved the US refugee intake to 45,000 for next year.
Tony Abbott infamously said while Prime Minister “nope, nope, nope” to accepting Rohingyan refugees, even as hundreds drowned when other countries in the region turned them away. Only 37 have been resettled in Australia since 2013.
There are close to 200 languishing in our brutal detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
As the illegal Manus camp nears its closing date, the government is trying to pressure refugees and asylum seekers to go back to danger. The government is offering bribes, including to Rohingyans, of up to $25,000 to “voluntarily” return home.
Few have taken up the offer. Rohingya are not recognised as Burmese citizens. Repatriation at this point risks death.
Australia’s complicity in the crisis goes deeper than cruelty towards refugees. Australia has finally joined the international call for a ceasefire in Rakhine. But sanctions targeting Burmese leaders were lifted in 2012. And in 2014, Australia re-established defence ties, including a permanent defence attaché in Burma.
Then acting Defence Minister George Brandis said, “Australia’s engagement with the Myanmar military, including this visit, allows the Australian Defence Force to reinforce the role of a professional defence force in a modern democracy.”
The Australian Defence Force has held training sessions and workshops in “non-combat areas” with the Burmese military.
While the UK has suspended military cooperation with Burma, Australia has not. The Australian government even moved to soften resolutions on Burma at the UN Human Rights Council, simply calling for an end to “violence” instead of condemning the military’s human rights abuses.
Next to all this, whatever humanitarian aid Australia offers is an empty gesture. The Burmese military is blocking international aid shipments and will likely siphon off most financial aid through corruption.
The solution is clear. Australia must open its borders to the Rohingya refugees, and offer them immediate, permanent settlement in Australia with family reunification.
Jostling for influence by cozying up to the Burmese military has not resulted in a “professional defence force”. It has only led to death and destruction for the Rohingya.
By Jason Wong