Australia must cut ties with Burmese military, free Rohingya refugees

September 22, 2017
September 9 rally in Melbourne. Photo: Islamic Council of Victoria

Deakin University researcher Ronan Lee believes Australia’s links with the Burmese military must stop in light of its recent campaign of violence against the Rohingya.

Lee, whose research focus is Burma, made these comments at a Darebin Ethnic Communities Council forum on Burma the Rohingya refugee crisis held on September 16.

Lee gave some historical background, noting there is evidence that the Rohingya have lived in what is now Burma’s Rakhine state for hundreds of years.

The area was part of what was formerly the independent kingdom of Arakan. Burma invaded Arakan in 1784. Britain fought Burma in 1823 and took control of Arakan, and later the whole of Burma.

Burma finally became independent in 1948, but there was a military coup in 1962.

Burma has numerous ethnic minorities, many of which have formed armed groups and rebelled against the military government.

Lee said the military is hostile to minorities whose religion or culture differs from the Buddhist majority. Even traditional dances are considered seditious.

He said that the Rohingya are victims of the worst oppression: they are denied citizenship; they need permission to go from one village to another; and their access to health care and education is limited.

The Rohingya hoped for democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi's government. Twelve months ago she invited former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan to carry out an investigation of the situation of the Rohingya.

His report, issued a month ago, recommended that the Rohingya be given pathways to citizenship, and that human rights abuses be prosecuted.

But shortly after the Annan report was made public a militant group, called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), carried out attacks on several military posts. This gave the military an excuse to retaliate violently against the civilian population.

Many houses were burnt and more than 370,000 people have fled to Bangladesh. The government is not letting food and medicine into the area.

Lee said China and Russia have blocked any action against Myanmar in the United Nations Security Council. China has economic interests in Burmar, including a port in Rakhine state and gas and oil pipelines from Burma to China’s Yunnan province.

However, there has recently been a sign of a possible change in China’s attitude of unqualified support to the Burmese government.

Lee said China supported a Security Council resolution on Burma that was “weak” but “better than nothing”. He said this was a “signal” from China to the Burmese government.

Lee said that Australian company Woodside Petroleum is exploring for oil and gas off the coast of Burma. The Australian military has links with the Burmese military, including providing training.

He said “this should stop”, because human rights abuses by the Burmese military are not a mistake, but come from the top.

The forum was also addressed by Habib from the Australian Burmese Rohingya Organisation. He said the army has massacred whole villages.

He said Buddhism is the state religion of Burma and that the government attacks all non-Buddhists and carries out forcible conversions. The government also incites people to kill Muslims.

Habib said the Rohingya people have asked for a UN peacekeeping force, and for aid to be distributed independently of the Burmese government.

He also called on the Australian government to free the Rohingya asylum seekers from Manus Island and Nauru detention centres.

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