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Australia's tepid Rohingya response fails the region

  • 19 October 2017


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.

The 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