Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne will visit Myanmar on Thursday, a country which the United Nations recently found conducted what almost certainly amounted to an act of genocide against the Rohingya people last year.
According to some estimates, around 10,000-20,000 people were killed, and more than 750,000 fled for neighbouring Bangladesh where they now live in makeshift refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Meanwhile, atrocities continue against the Rohingya and other Burmese minorities that remain in the country, many of whom were stripped of their citizenship almost thirty years ago.
Despite this, Australia remains one of the only western countries to maintain links with the brutal Tatamadaw military, something that puts us out of step with the United States, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and France among many others.
The Australian Government insists this support – which amounts to about $400,000 annually – is limited to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, peacekeeping and English language training that 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”. But the defence secretary Greg Moriarty admitted to Senate Estimates recently that there is no screening in place as to which individuals are involved in these programs, including whether they were complicit in the atrocities that took place last year.
The possibility that Australian tax payer dollars are flowing in any way to those that raped, murdered and burned the villages of the Rohingya should send a collective chill down our national spine.
In October, Australia took the welcome step of imposing sanctions against five senior military and border guard officials – with penalties of up to $1.7m for any engagement by companies, and 10 years imprisonment for individuals. We were late to the table though – the EU and Canada did so in June, and the United States in August 2017. And while four of these individuals were explicitly named in the UN’s landmark Fact-Finding Mission report handed down that same month, a number of others were conspicuously absent.
This includes the Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy, Soe Win – both explicitly named in the UN’s report, and which Australia in fact previously sanctioned between 2007 and 2012.
One argument is that by keeping the door open to the senior commanders, Australia has more of a possibility to engage constructively with them. Indeed, Australia’s outgoing Ambassador to Myanmar, Nicholas Coppel, met with Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw last April and the now the chief of defence force, Angus Campbell, met with Soe Win on the sidelines of a conference in Seoul last September.
Admittedly, this is also the approach the EU and others took in similarly excluding these two from their own sanctions regimes – but in light of the recent UN report (which came after they had imposed their own sanctions, unlike Australia), they are now likely to do so.
Ultimately, the one thing that scares the Generals more than anything is the prospect of being hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for their crimes. That is why Australia should use its diplomatic weight regionally to encourage Asean to do more, and internationally for every avenue of accountability to be explored. With the Security Council likely deadlocked over the possibility of an ICC referral, this means looking at additional options such as a Special Tribunal which we saw in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and ensuring a new investigative mechanism which Australia helped secure in September is now fully funded to get to work.
Payne needs to use this visit – as her British counterpart did in September – to signal a change in approach to the Burmese regime, including Aung San Suu Kyi. We need to make it clear that the days of our quiet diplomacy and hopes for constructive engagement are over, and that we will use our full weight to go after the perpetuators, including their economic interests, no matter how senior they are.
At the same time, we need to look at how our $77m in annual aid to Myanmar (making us one of the largest donors) can be better tuned to supporting the Rohingya and other minorities that remain, including in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. And in addition, ramp up our humanitarian support for those that have left, including by looking at a dedicated refugee intake as we did for many Syrians.
We do not want to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.