Although it looks increasingly likely that Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims amounts to crimes against humanity, Australia’s response to these hostilities, which threaten to destabilise the delicate geopolitical balance in the Indo-Pacific region, have continued to be inconsistent.
The situation has continued to deteriorate as the Myanmar security forces’ (the Tatmadaw) systematic, scorched earth campaign aims to drive the 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state from Myanmar. In just two months, more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh. The Buddhist-majority Tatmadaw alleges it is undertaking anti-terror clearance operations in response to the 25 August attacks on police posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Yet accounts of massacres, rapes, torching of villages, forced relocation and laying of landmines along the path of those fleeing belie this. Evidence suggests that the situation is, as described by a senior UN official, a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.
For decades, Rohingya Muslims have been denied rights to citizenship and freedom of movement. As such, they have been rendered stateless by a government that considers them illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, despite evidence that they have resided in Myanmar for centuries. The latest persecution, although unprecedented, is preceded by years of human rights abuses.
Recognising the conflict as a flashpoint, Australia has already committed more than $70 million in aid this year to promote stability in Myanmar. It has further pledged $30 million to those affected by the crisis and sent relief experts to refugee camps in Bangladesh. The Australian government has spoken out against the violence. However, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has warned Myanmar authorities to exercise ‘restraint’ and respect human rights—a disingenuous statement that assumes a non-existent power balance between Myanmar authorities and the Rohingya Muslim population.
Worryingly, the Australian government has been accused of ‘whitewashing’ a UN Human Rights Council Resolution passed on 29 September this year concerning the Myanmar government’s refusal of entry to UN investigators. Australia insisted that the words ‘such violations and abuses’ be replaced with the less inculpatory ‘violence’, despite mounting evidence of crimes against humanity. The Australian Defence Force also continues to train and support the Tatmadaw as part of its strategy to keep peace in the region.
But most concerning is the recent deal offered to Rohingya refugees in Australian offshore detention centres. Refugees were each offered $25,000 to return to Myanmar. Not only is this an appalling response to a humanitarian crisis, but it indicates something more sinister. Australia is demonstrating that it is deeply complicit in supporting a regime engaged in a campaign that amounts to crimes against humanity.
This is completely antithetical to the ‘principled, pragmatic and consultative approach’ to human rights abuses that Australia promised upon its election to the UN Human Rights Council. Not only does failing to stand up against gross human rights violations reveal the lack of principle behind Australia’s foreign policy, Australia has also failed to recognise pragmatic reasons for doing so. If pragmatism in this context means placing raw political need above the pursuit of justice for those subject to human rights violations, as it has historically, there remain strong reasons to take action to ensure that the bloodshed does not further devolve. With ASEAN proving itself to be impotent and lacking in unanimity on the issue, the region is crying out for leadership that Australia can offer.
In another alarming blight on Australia’s human rights record, its treatment of asylum seekers coming by boat is marred by fear and distrust. The massive number of asylum seekers now languishing in under-resourced Bangladeshi refugee camps increases the risk that some will risk their lives to be smuggled to Australia, threatening the government’s strong, if immoral, stance against boat arrivals. Furthermore, the squalid conditions of the refugee camps risk festering extremism among a Rohingya Muslim population that is already disenfranchised. Australia has a vested interest in preventing these camps from becoming recruitment grounds for the region’s growing number of violent extremist groups.
Finally, given the Indo-Pacific is home to nations with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, ending the Rohingya crisis is also a matter of regional stability. Myanmar’s extreme persecution of Rohingya Muslims risks igniting tensions with these nations as they react to the targeted destruction of that population.
The persecution of the Rohingya bears striking similarities to the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides of the nineties. Following both of those, the international community was criticised for failing to act sooner to end the bloodshed. Australia’s continuing complicity in the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims will likewise land it on the wrong side of history.
Australia would be wise to consider the Amnesty International's recommendations, which include suspending military cooperation with the Tatmadaw, and pressuring Myanmar’s authorities to give UN investigators and humanitarian agencies access to Rakhine State. That is if it wants to maintain regional peace and prove itself worthy of its place on the Human Rights Council.
Emma Squires is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.