Speech - Myanmar: Rakhine State









I rise today to speak about the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. The Rohingya are often described as one of the most persecuted ethnic groups on earth.

The Burma Citizenship Law which was enacted in 1982 stripped citizenship from the country’s Rohingya people, who had lived in the country now known as Myanmar for centuries.

Census records reveal that between 1871 and 1911, the Muslim population in Myanmar tripled to almost 180 000, as part of British policies to encourage migrant labour for the cultivation of rice.

In 1948, when Myanmar gained independence from the British, the Rohingya people who had been promised an autonomous state were rebuffed by the new leadership. The persecution of the Rohingya people continued throughout the subsequent decades – Rohingya social and political organisations were closed, privately owned Rohingya businesses were transferred to the government, and the Rohingya people were subjected to forced labour, arbitrary detention and physical assault.

Concerted policies of discrimination against the Rohingya people – who are now more than 1 million in number – flow through to the basics of health and education.

The Rohingya people face nothing short of a health crisis, which Harvard University researchers have described as a vicious cycle that begins with poor health in infancy, that then feeds into malnutrition and water-borne illnesses in childhood, and that is capped off by a complete insufficiency of obstetric care for pregnant women. These outcomes are, needless to say, entirely preventable with action from the Myanmar government.

Rohingya children in Myanmar are all but denied a public education, which exposes an entire generation of Rohingya to the risk of illiteracy. The government has banned Rohingya students from attending Sittwe University, claiming that a policy of segregation will prevent violent flare-ups between Buddhist and Rohingya classmates.

But Mr Deputy Speaker the events in which began in Myanmar in August last year – described in testimony to the UN Human Rights Council as the assault, torture, rape and murder of innocent Rohingya people – represent a shocking escalation in the persecution of the Rohingya population.

In a horrifying example of disproportionate response, after a series of small attacks on police and army posts in August, Myanmar’s military launched a catastrophic wave of so-called “clearance operations”. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has collated a raft of concordant reports from fleeing Rohingya people, who have witnessed, and I quote: “acts of appalling violence committed against the Rohingya, including deliberately burning people to death inside their homes, murders of children and adults, indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians, widespread rapes of women and girls, and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques”.

The United Nations has condemned the Myanmar government as perpetrating a “textbook case” of ethnic cleansing.

At a conservative estimate, MSF puts the number of Rohingya people killed last August at 6,700, including more than 700 children under the age of five.

As recently as last Friday, the Associated Press has provided video and satellite evidence of five mass graves in Rakhine State. Rohingya survivors of the August attack describe more than 200 soldiers sweeping through a Rakhine State village, driving out residents and shooting those who couldn’t flee. Neighbouring villagers are then alleged to have cut the throats of the injured and thrown the young and the elderly into fires. 

The violence in Myanmar has precipitated one of the fastest, most catastrophic mass exoduses of refugees in modern history. As of 27 January, an estimated 688,000 Rohingya people have been driven across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh, creating the world’s largest refugee camp.

Refugee camps offer displaced Rohingya people some respite from immediate persecution, but they soon face a range of other dangers including disease, hunger and – with the onset of the wet season – catastrophic flooding. Recent tests by the World Health Organisation of the water supply in the refugee camp found that 86 per cent of samples tested positive for E. coli. Risks to health and human life will only be exacerbated with the imminent monsoon season and the influx of more refugees, although the Bangladeshi government has no plan to provide refugee status to the Rohingya people currently subsisting in makeshift camps.

Back in Myanmar, the government has blocked access to Northern Rakhine State for the UNHCR and other aid agencies, the media and other independent observers, leaving these parties to rely on the reports of the survivors who have fled to Bangladesh.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the electorate of Lilley is home to more than 5 per cent of Australia’s Rohingya population. I have had the privilege to meet with members of the Rohingya community and their advocates, both in the electorate office in Brisbane and here in the Parliament. I have heard, time and again, the harrowing stories from a people who have been denied their identity and denied their statehood. These are a people who have escaped persecution and terror but whose fear for their lives, and the lives of their families, is seared into their brows.

Last year, I met Mohammed Sadek, a young Rohingya refugee living in Lilley, who spoke about the escalation of violence in Myanmar, the killing of his people, and the systematic burning of their villages. He urged this Parliament to take quick and decisive action before, as he put it, “the Rohingya are exterminated as a people in Myanmar”.

The Federal Labor Party is deeply concerned by the ongoing reports of human rights abuses in Myanmar and the associated humanitarian crisis unfolding in Bangladesh.

The government of Myanmar has nothing to gain by allowing this conflict to flourish. The latest escalation of violence is an opportunity for Myanmar to recommit to the pursuit of peace and reconciliation, rather than oversee and inflame a modern humanitarian disaster. The world is watching.

Labor calls on the Federal Government to condemn these human rights abuses in Myanmar and for the Foreign Minister to advance the case for a strong UN General Assembly Resolution.

Measures which downplay the seriousness of the attacks and killings of Rohingya people, such as the Government’s insistence during UN negotiations last year to replace the term “violence and abuse” with the word “violence” in official documents, serve only to diminish the gravity of the real and tragic abuses unfolding in Myanmar.

Labor urges the Foreign Affairs Minister instead to work with the UN to establish an independent investigation into these abuses, to help broker an end to the otherwise relentless, but needless and senseless persecution of a historically marginalised people.