Rohingya People, Myanmar And The Australian Government: An Unfortunate Mix

In spite of recent cases of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, conducted by the state’s military and government, the Australian military remains fully sanctioned, and are undertaking the “green light” to train and advise Myanmar military personnel, also known as the Tatmadaw.

Rakhine, the area where many Rohingya reside, was long described to be an “open-air prison” by Amnesty International. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar who reside on the border of Bangladesh with restricted levels of access to healthcare, education, travel freedoms, and other basic rights. And now, they are facing Apartheid and genocide.

The Australian Department of Defense plans to spend approximately $400 000 on English lessons and training courses for members of their national military between the 2017 – 2018 financial years. This is part of a multilateral military exercise known as the “Pirap Jabiru” exercise, which Australia co-hosts with Thailand. The exercise occurs despite the fact that Australian allies, such as the UK, US, Canada, France and other NATO members, have pulled out their support for the Myanmar military.

The recent ethnic cleansings have been enacted on the Rohingya population, a minority population in the country. Since August 2017, approximately 680 000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh, with Yanghee Lee, a UN Human Rights investigator, affirming that the situation has “the hallmarks of a genocide.” Likewise, the Myanmar military have stirred recent controversy surrounding their purchase of fighter jets from Russia, and Ballistic missiles from North Korea.

The response from the Department of Defence was stated as follows:

“Defense has a modest program of engagement with Myanmar in non-combat areas, with a focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping training and English language training. This engagement is designed to expose the Tatmadaw to the ways of a modern, professional defence force and highlight the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law.”

The irony is that the minister for Defense stated that he “strongly condemned” the assault on security outposts by the Rohingya militants, where 11 police were killed, but does not demonstrate the same level of condemnation towards the government’s slaughter of 6 700 Rohingya civilians by the Myanmar government within the span of one month.

I personally see a lot of power-play and politics involved in this conflict. It still strikes me as disingenuous to train a military to commit humanitarian atrocities, albeit in a manner that relates to “non-combat areas”. This is especially relevant in light of the rather tenuous humanitarian rights record of the Australian government. It is questionable that a government that claims to be moral and liberal would prioritize relationships with another country over the human lives that their military chooses to take.

This incident is rather under-reported on, and needs more public attention. I feel that it is not until the matter is put under the spotlight that a public and government response will happen in the near future, because it is typically the case that media attention is needed to be the catalyst in order to spark action against a conflict or genocide.

For more information on this topic, visit Amnesty International or the Guardian.