Australia's tepid Rohingya response fails the region



Australia's incoherent urge to 'lead' in the Asia Pacific while refusing to meaningfully reflect on the responsibilities this would require has left us floundering in the face of what the United Nations has called the 'ethnic cleansing' of Myanmar's minority Rohingya population.

Rohingya orphansThe current crisis is just the latest in a decades long string of violent crackdowns which have sent thousands of Rohingya people fleeing across the region. A crisis in May 2015 saw 130,000 leave the northern Rakhine State with at least 8000 Rohingya boarding rickety boats — only to float aimlessly in the Andaman Sea before an agreement brokered between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia allowed them to land in the Indonesian province of Aceh.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop later that month pledged an additional $6 million in humanitarian aid to be administered in Rakhine State: $2 million to the UNHCR, $3 million to the World Food Program and $1 million to the Burma Emergency Response Fund. Of course, this is not even a quarter of what the government had cut from the Myanmar program after slashing $11 billion from overall aid spending in the 2015 budget, leading to admonishment from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and eye-rolls from the development community across the region.

The salt in that wound came from then-prime minister Tony Abbott, whose 'stop the boats' refrain proved what Singaporean founding father Lee Kuan Yew already knew — Australia is doomed to be the 'white trash of Asia'. As wire agencies compiled photo essays of malnourished, partially-clothed elderly men sitting atop wooden boats in scorching heat and young hijab-wearing mothers fishing limp, dead children from the ocean, Abbott thought then the time to spruik his favourite policy.

Push factors forcing entire Rohingya communities to up and leave were irrelevant to Abbott, it was all about people smuggling. 'I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary. And if other countries choose to do that, frankly that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten,' he said, as reported by SBS.

The comments weren't all that out there for a man who has the eloquence of a child's Furby toy banished to the back of a cupboard, but it was one of those frightening moments in which Australia's toxic domestic politics leaks out to be judged by the rest of the world.

Well, now what? This current flare up has sent half a million Rohingya people — both Muslim and the minority-within-a-minority Rohingya Hindus — across the border into Bangladesh where they face food and healthcare shortages, as well as uncertainty as Bangladesh struggles to respond adequately. Horrifying accounts of mass rapes and the murder of children and infants continue to dominate regional headlines. But the Australian response has, once again, been lacking.


"Successive governments' insistence that Australia must take a leading role in the Asia Pacific would surely imply Australia's response would be more than 'what's in it for us?'"


Last month, the Guardian reported the government was planning to pay off an estimated seven Rohingya refugees who are currently incarcerated in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, to return to Myanmar as part of efforts to shut down the camp.

'I don't want to die in PNG. I prefer to die in Myanmar. Probably Buddhist people are going to kill me as soon as I arrive in Myanmar ... Australia doesn't care if we live or we die,' 32-year-old detainee Yahya Tabani told the Guardian.

This was quickly followed by a Fairfax report which found the Australian delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at the end of September had forced the 'softening' of language in a resolution meant to condemn the worsening atrocities. Meanwhile, a $300,000 'cooperation program' between our military and the Tatmadaw, Myanmar's military behind most of the violence, will continue despite criticisms. For comparison, the UK suspended operations mid-September.

Burmese activists and human rights watchers agree the chasm between the minority Rohingya and Buddhist majority is insurmountable, at least for the foreseeable future, and no domestic government is likely to push for change. The Rohingya crisis is not one which will be solved, it needs to be managed.

Almost two decades into the 'Asian century,' Australia still uses 'Asia' as a shorthand for East Asia and meaningful engagement in Southeast Asia trails as a result. The fact that this is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory in the region should alone be enough motivation to react accordingly, but, failing that, successive governments' insistence that Australia must take a leading role in the Asia Pacific would surely imply Australia's response would be more than 'what's in it for us?'



Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.

Topic tags: Erin Cook, Myanmar, Rohingya



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Existing comments

Australian culture is not yet Asian but we are making a very good effort to change that by selling off our possessions and heritage to Asian countries. Not only Lee Kuan Yew sees [saw] Australia as the "white trash of Asia". Such flagrant racism is not unusual amongst Asian countries. Don't see much effort from the rest of Asia on behalf of the Rohingya and surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), none from Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Wonder why no other South East Asian country helps its fellow Asians. Maybe Australia is not the great racist country after all. We are relative minnows in the region and quite generous in aid to those who in the main despise us.
john frawley | 20 October 2017

Thank you Erin. Keep writing. Keep telling what needs to be heard.
Anne Benjamin | 20 October 2017

A necessary call for Australia to engage with Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, or stop posturing about taking a leading role in the region. A leading role is only achieved by being accepted as such by the people, the nations, we claim to lead. The more we reduce our cooperation through respectful aid programs and the stronger we push our Fortress Australia policies against people fleeing severe community unrest in the region, the less likely we would ever be regarded as anything more than the white trash left in Asia by the defunct British Empire.
Ian Fraser | 20 October 2017

The tepid response of the conservative side of politics to issues of human rights abuses, whether it be in Myanmar or the so called war on drugs in the Philippines, reflects the inability of the Government to see our role in Southeast Asia as a bastion of support for human rights. Our track record on so called illegal migrants. Manus and Nauru over the last decade or so is a damming indictment on both major political parties. It is quite embarrassing when travelling to Asia as an Australian, as our polices are indefensible. Meanwhile we remain embroiled in the quagmire of failed western policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Gavin | 20 October 2017

I note that many people seem to only care about the Rohingya. Nobody seems to bother about the other ethnicities which have been treated just as badly. Ask the Karen, Mon who have been forced over the border to Thailand where they are very badly treated. I was in Burma in 2012 when the riots occurred in Arakan. They were caused by three Rohingya men who raped a Buddhist girl. She became an outcast who had to marry one of them. The Buddhists fear that the country will be overrun by muslims and Buddhism destroyed. Many of the Catholics, I met, feel the same. Australia is nowhere near as racist as countries such as India. Aung San Suu Kyi or the NLD do not have the influence which people think they have. The most powerful ministries are controlled by the TATMADAW (Myanmar Military).
John | 20 October 2017

Will I ever give my first preference vote to politicians who don't respect the human rights of asylum seekers? Nope! Nope! Nope!
Grant Allen | 21 October 2017

As usual we get what we vote for.There is no love in the present govt.for the poor and under privileged.
Nev.Kelly | 22 October 2017

Unfortunately, lots of lovely suburban Australians agree with what is happening in Myanmar as well as sending those Rohinga on Manus back to their deaths.
Jillian Curr | 23 October 2017


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