Rakhine State in Myanmar Motion

This week in the Parliament I presented a motion about the current situation in Myanmar, following my visit earlier this year.

The motion:

 

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (12:23): I move:

That this House:

(1) commends the work funded by the Australian Development Assistance program through bilateral, multilateral and non-government organisation partners like Save the Children, to strengthen governance, democracy and vulnerable communities across Myanmar;

(2) is cognisant of and concurs with international concern about the marginalisation and displacement of Muslims in Rakhine State in Myanmar, particularly since 2012;

(3) expresses its grave concern about the coordinated attacks on Border Guard Police posts of 9 October 2016, at three locations in northern Rakhine State, and:

(a) offers its condolences to the families of the nine police officers who were killed and to the Myanmar people;

(b) abhors the violence and the theft of guns and ammunition; and

(c) asserts that those responsible for such a heinous crime should be brought to justice;

(4) observes also that in the interests of democracy, peace, security and human rights, the rule of law should be upheld in Rakhine State, and calls on security forces to conduct security operations in a manner that does not marginalise or displace people in Rakhine State;

(5) notes:

(a) the very real risk that excessive use of force may have on the effect of radicalising and further marginalising the Muslim community in Rakhine State, increasing conflict and hampering efforts to achieve peaceful outcomes; and

(b) with deep concern, the report on 3 February 2017 from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on reported human rights violations occurring in northern Rakhine State;

(6) acknowledges:

(a) the national-level bodies established to investigate reports of human rights abuses in northern Rakhine State and urges them to undertake credible, thorough and impartial investigations;

(b) the work of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, and commends the Myanmar State Counsellor (MSC) for meeting with the Special Rapporteur; and

(c) also the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and commends the MSC for having established that Commission; and

(7) calls upon the civilian government, military, and parliament of Myanmar to redouble their efforts to end the marginalisation and displacement of Muslims in Rakhine State, and to seek to create conditions in which all residents of Rakhine State can live peacefully, can have access to education and healthcare, and can have freedom of movement.\

 

Speech by Terri Butler MP:

Those of us who are speaking to this motion recently visited Myanmar on a delegation hosted by Save the Children and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We visited Yangon, Nay Pyi Daw, Rakhine State, as well as other places and we saw the nation firsthand around nine months after the election. The National League for Democracy led civilian government has been in office only since April last year. The military remains very powerful, with a constitutional right to a quarter of the seats in the parliament and the right to appoint three important ministers. Despite these obvious constraints, there is, nonetheless, a very high community expectation of the NLD government, the civilian government, in Myanmar. That government faces a range of challenges, including unrest and conflict in relation to Shan State, Kachin State and Muslims in Rakhine State, amongst other situations of conflict and unrest in the nation. Our delegation was grateful for the opportunity to visit Sittwey in Rakhine state. While we were there we visited a Rakhine village, and we also visited an IDP camp, where we were able to speak with Muslims who had been without freedom of movement since 2012.

Rakhine state has been a site of conflict and unrest for a substantial period of time. In October last year there was an insurgency in the state, where nine border police were murdered in a coordinated attack. Subsequently three townships were closed off, with a security operation being commenced. Since that time the UN, human rights organisations and others have been very concerned about human rights abuses in northern Rakhine State.

The UN special rapporteur had been in Rakhine State only a few days before our delegation visited. She has since given her statement to the HRC. In that she talked about some of the testimony that she received while visiting northern Rakhine State. She said that she visited Cox's Bazar, where she met about 140 people from several villages in the north of Rakhine and heard from them 'harrowing account after harrowing account'. She said, in her official statement:

I heard allegation after allegation of horrific events like these—slitting of throats, indiscriminate shootings, setting alight houses with people tied up inside and throwing very young children into the fire, as well as gang rapes and other sexual violence. Even men, young and old, broke down and cried in front of me telling me about what they went through and their losses.

In that same statement, she called for a commission of inquiry to investigate the systemic, structural and institutional discrimination in policy, law and practice as well as longstanding persecution against Muslims in Rakhine State.

I am aware that the Human Rights Council is considering what action should be taken in relation to these issues. Labor is deeply concerned at the reports of human rights abuses in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine State, and our party condemns all violence, discrimination and abuses of civil liberties. The government of Myanmar must do everything in its power to protect all its citizens, including persecuted minorities in Rakhine State. We welcome the government of Myanmar's commitment to pursue peace and national reconciliation and we offer our full support for efforts to achieve sustained peace and genuine reconciliation.

That is why Labor calls on all parties to engage in a process that is transparent, open and independent. It is essential that this process is supported by consensus with the government of Myanmar. We call on the Australian government to speak out on human rights in Myanmar and to clarify and explain our government's position on the draft resolution in the UN Human Rights Council which is aimed at giving effect to the special rapporteur's recommendation for a commission of inquiry. The government should also do what it can within the international community to see that full and unhindered humanitarian access to northern Rakhine State is restored.

 

Speech by Trent Zimmerman MP:
Mr ZIMMERMAN (North Sydney) (12:28): I second the motion. It is a pleasure to do so and I congratulate the member for Griffith for moving what is both a timely and important motion on the situation faced by Muslims in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine State. It is timely because the UN Human Rights Council is currently considering what action it should take following the report from its special rapporteur, but it is also important, because the clear evidence is that a large segment of the Myanmar population—the Muslims in Rakhine—are experiencing systematic discrimination and abuse of their human rights.

Myanmar is a country in transition. After so many decades of military rule, it has seen for the first time the election of a democratic parliament. For many of us around the world, along with its own people, we have watched the progress towards democracy with both concern and inspiration, as we have seen so many Myanmar residents maintain that commitment to see democracy achieved in their own country. Of course, no person has been more central to that than Aung San Suu Kyi, who is genuinely a hero to her own people but also an emblem for all of us around the world who believe that democracy is fundamental to the human rights and dignity of mankind that we all seek to achieve.

We should, however, not assume that the election of a democratic parliament is the end of that process; in so many ways, it is just the beginning and, as the member for Griffith alluded to, there are so many challenges facing this new government. It is effectively seeking to create a new civil administration from scratch after so many years of military rule. It faces a situation where the constitution it inherited still gives extraordinary control to the military, reflected in the fact that they have 25 per cent of the seats in parliament and a guaranteed right to control most of the defence and security departments and ministerial portfolios. It faces the internal conflicts that have racked Burma, and now Myanmar, for so many years and has established a peace process to try and tackle those issues. Most fundamentally, it faces those extraordinary economic and social challenges of lifting a nation that has been isolated for so long back into the path of economic and social development. None of those challenges, however, in any way relinquish the obligations that the new Myanmar government has to work towards ensuring that human rights are extended to all its people. What the international community has seen is clear evidence of the fact that those human rights, to the extent that they exist in Myanmar, are not being extended to the Muslim communities of Rakhine State.

As the member for Griffith mentioned, we had the opportunity to observe this firsthand through those of us who were privileged to be invited by Save the Children fund to travel to Myanmar earlier this year. The delegation's purpose was to look at foreign aid and the work of aid agencies generally, but it was not possible to be there without the issue of Muslims in Rakhine State looming large on our agenda. We had the opportunity to meet with senior officials from the national and the state government of Rakhine, with aid agencies, with the UN personnel on the ground and perhaps, most importantly of all, with many members of the local Muslim community—this instance, some of the 120,000 people currently living in IDC camps across Rakhine State. What was evident from that is that there are systematic human rights abuses occurring, which were reflected in some basic things like access to access to education and health care: members of IDC camps were simply not allowed to use hospital facilities in Sittwe, even in life-threatening circumstances, their movement across the state is restricted and, in many cases, they are deprived of the ability to leave the IDC camps; and members of the Muslim community are completed denied access to the normal institutions of civil society. More dramatically, however, we saw evidence of the systematic misuse of the military's power and the rape and burning of villagers and, in some cases, murder, as the member for Griffith alluded to.

The pathway forward is complicated but there is a pathway forward, and I think the recommendations that were outlined by Kofi Annan in a report released last week provide a blueprint to achieve that. I am pleased that the government of Aung San Suu Kyi has accepted those recommendations. But it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that she lives up to the promise that she has made.

 

Speech by Andrew Leigh MP:

Dr LEIGH (Fenner) (12:33): Australia has had a diplomatic presence in Burma, now known as Myanmar, since 1952. Unlike other countries, we never withdrew, even at the peak of the military rule. In 2013, I had the honour of representing Prime Minister Gillard to welcome military President Thein Sein to Canberra. It did not occur to me at the time that just a few years later I would be in Myanmar with this bipartisan delegation, funded by the

Gates Foundation and organised by Save the Children, meeting democratically elected leaders from the National League for Democracy. Labor welcomes the 2015 election result and the strong economic progress that has been made in Myanmar over that period.

During our visit to Myanmar we saw firsthand the good that foreign aid can do. We visited projects run by Oxfam, World Vision, the United Nations Development Programme and the Danish Refugee Council. We saw Australian Volunteers for International Development volunteers. We visited Phandeeyar, where CEO David Madden told us about how Phandeeyar is working on building microenterprises. It is doing everything from teaching the Harvard CS50 computer science course and running accelerator programs for firms to working on democracy projects for its Open Development Myanmar program.

We were assisted by a range of staff, including Paul Ronalds, Peter Hodgson, Mat Tinkler, Sarah Carter and Michael McGrath from Save the Children and Australian embassy officials, including Ambassador Nicholas Coppel, Nick Cumpston, Esther Sainsbury and Jeremy Kruse. In all cases they were a credit to our country and to their role.

But we were also reminded, as we visited those programs, of the damage that an aid cut can do. When you see how Australian aid has helped to provide clean water to communities and how it has helped to guard against the volatility of agriculture, and when you see firsthand how we are assisting in providing agricultural assistance in the fields and the role that Australian aid has played in building an understanding of human rights and economic development then one is naturally concerned at the 25 per cent cut to Australian aid to Myanmar that has occurred over recent years. When Labor was in government overseas development assistance increased from 0.28 per cent of gross national income in 2007-08 to 0.37 per cent in 2013-14 and was on track to reach 0.5 per cent in 2017-18. Under the coalition, development assistance is now just 0.23 per cent of national income, the lowest level since comparable records began in the 1970s and well below the OECD's average of 0.3 per cent.

As other speakers have acknowledged, one of the large challenges for Myanmar is the treatment of Muslims from Rakhine State. The Rohingya are not one of the 135 ethnic groups recognised in Myanmar's constitution, and their treatment has been a source of great concern for the international community. The Human Rights Watch report on the military's response to the October 9 attack makes horrifying reading. The International Crisis Group has warned that an overreaction by the military could lead to Rakhine State becoming a flashpoint for global jihadis. ASEAN states, including Malaysia and Indonesia, have raised the treatment of the Rohingya.

We were pleased when, in our meeting, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Kyaw Tin, told us that Aung San Suu Kyi's view was that, as the military's response in Rakhine State is scrutinised, nothing should be hidden from public view. We greatly welcome that. But we were deeply concerned to visit internally-displaced people camps in Sittwe and to meet families, some of whom had been there for many years and are still living in communal living situations—circumstances we were told that were unprecedented, even in Sudan, for displaced people to live in for this long. The stories of women who had lost their babies because of their inability to access hospital assistance in speedy time were chilling.

I believe that Australia could do more to explain its position on key human rights issues, particularly the draft resolution in the UN Human Rights Council. Our military engagement must operate under the conventions that are necessary to protect human rights, but higher quality military engagement would improve our ability to influence the military in Myanmar to ensure that they abide by basic human rights standards.

 

Speech by Ann Sudmalis MP:
Mrs SUDMALIS (Gilmore) (12:39): Mingalabar! This is the first word you will hear when arriving in Myanmar.

It means welcome. This country is one of the most magical and undiscovered destinations in the world. Myanmar, formerly Burma, is a South-East Asian nation of more than 100 ethnic groups, and the bordering nations include India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. The commercial capital and the largest city is Yangon, formerly Rangoon. It is home to bustling markets, numerous parks and lakes and the towering, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, which contains Buddhist relics that date back to the sixth century.

Myanmar was considered for a long time as a pariah state under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011. In 1990 the opposition National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the election, but the result was not recognised. The generals who ran the country suppressed almost all dissent, and the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was the international symbol, prompting condemnation and sanctions from around the world. Then, in 2011, the military handed the reins over to a nominally civilian government, following elections the previous year. Finally, in 2015, the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won enough seats in parliament to form a government.

The dominance of the largest ethnic group, the Bamar people, over the country's many minorities has been fuelling a series of long-running rebellions, although a gradual peace process yielded a draft ceasefire in 2015.

One of the greatest concerns for those living in Myanmar is the need for true peace throughout the nation, especially in the Rakhine. Gradually the political landscape is changing. There is vibrant expectation, but there is genuine concern about where that area is going.

The Lonely Planet guide says of Myanmar:

It doesn't matter whether this is your first or 51st visit to Myanmar: you won't fail to notice the energy, hope and possibilities for the future that hang in the air.

It is exactly that air of optimism that inspired the International Women's Development Agency to embark on a first-time mentorship program for women in the Myanmar parliament to be linked to past and present MPs from Australia. The following are some words from that organisation:

Six newly elected women MPs from Myanmar sit in a room, buzzing with nervous energy as they wait for the six strangers flying to meet them. They're chatting amongst themselves about what they want to achieve in their careers, who they hope to be matched with, and where they see the relationship going.

It almost sounds like a blind date. But these women have come from four political parties and six ethnic groups to lead their people. The women on the way to meet them are seasoned current and former Members of Parliament from all over Australia, and they're there to mentor their newly elected Myanmar sisters.

It was indeed an amazing experience to be involved in this process, and there are many women involved in the program to make it a success. The mentors are Penny Wright, Claire Moore, Janelle Saffin, Judith Graley, Lesley Clark and me. Our mentees are Nan Htwe Thu, Khin Swe Lwin, Nang Khin Saw, Nan Moe, Khin Saw Wai and Chris Htun. The program supporters are Leonie Morgan and Jen Clark, along with the amazing Akhaya Women:

Htar Htar, Cheery Zahau, Yu Mon Khaing, Alyson Neel and Nann Sandi Moon. Akhaya was established as part of an initiative to protect women from domestic violence. It is now a well-integrated social enterprise working on women's empowerment on many fronts.

Nan Chris Htun is my mentee. As a veterinarian, she is absolutely passionate about fisheries and livestock issues. She is already working on these and has been reported in her local media as a champion for the cause. She has suggested the abolition of the Myanmar International Cooperation Agency, whose proposed aim is to boost to fish and meat production and to assist in food sufficiency for the country, as it is not brought benefit to the people.

Chris Htun recently advised:

There are challenges and needs for the veterinary sector, treatment, food supply, small and medium livestock and fishery businesses, and job opportunities, and (due to MICA), the country's economy has been crippled, causing losses of public fund.

Chris Htun has also called for transparency in the management of state-owned factories, and she is very concerned about where that money is going. I am proud of the actions of this young woman in her resolve to remedy some fundamental national issues. Chris Htun and I speak to each other each fortnight. We will do this for a full 12 months and we are developing a firm friendship based on respect and passion for our nations.

With women such as those involved in this program, there is a degree of optimism, but we really need to see the Rakhine area on the international stage and investigate how best to assist this fragile Myanmar democracy.

We need to help these people all together. It is an amazing democracy, with difficult numbers, so difficult combinations of people have to work together in order to get democratic change and constitutional change. It is an uphill battle for them all.

 

Speech by Peter Khalil MP:

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (12:44): It was really a remarkable opportunity to be on a bipartisan delegation to Myanmar —sponsored and hosted by Save the Children, a wonderful NGO—in January of this year. We were able to view firsthand the great work being done by Save the Children and many other NGOs, largely through the Australian aid program and other aid programs, that was about strengthening governance and democracy—this new democracy in Myanmar—and, at the grassroots, implementing services to meet basic needs around hygiene —through the WASH program, which is fundamentally important—education and many other areas of need for some of the poorest people in Myanmar, and they are very poor. Something like 10 per cent of the population of 53 million are still on $2 a day or less.

We also saw some of the people in the internally displaced people's camps, populated by the Muslim Rohingya population, who had been forced into those camps. Their circumstances were even more dire than in some of those poorest parts of Myanmar that we visited as well. In a sense, the work of those NGOs is of critical importance to these people as they provide those basic essential services. In some respects, this is a conundrum, because the more these NGOs provide these basic services the less seriously the central government has to take its responsibility to provide those services. Nonetheless, it was good to see firsthand the aid program being implemented and to meet with the people on the ground who were the recipients of these programs and also those who were delivering the programs, to get a real sense of where there needs to be improvement or efficiencies in those programs. We had the opportunity of meeting with several government ministers, including the Myanmar state councillor responsible for foreign affairs, as well as the education minister and the Chief Minister of Rakhine State.

All the speakers have shared with us that it is a remarkably good thing that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have won the recent democratic elections, and that is certainly true. They deserve our support. They need our support.

We, of course, applaud and encourage her efforts, particularly with regard to the national peace agreement, which 18 warring ethnic peoples have signed so that they can move forward in a peaceful transition and share in the resources, particularly in those areas. So there is real progress there.

However, the reality is that there are real constraints on this nascent democracy. The reality is that the military still control 25 per cent of the numbers in parliament; they get that 25 per cent automatically. Don't we wish some of our political parties could get an automatic 25 per cent! But, more seriously, they control the three key ministries of defence, internal security and immigration and border, and that puts a real restriction on the ability of Aung San Suu Kyi and her government to have any real progress in some of these areas.

Frankly, this is where the main international concern lies at the moment, with the human rights abuses that we have seen against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State. There are 1.3 million Rohingya in Rakhine State. We were quite fortunate to be able to get access to those IDP camps, and we saw firsthand the camps that they had been forced into and the difficulties that they are facing.

We know that last year there was an attack on Myanmar border police and nine police had their throats slit. In some respects, what was very interesting was Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts, as far as we understood, to constrain the military's response. Unfortunately, that was ignored by the military. Rather than a commensurate or proportional response, we saw a scorched earth type policy where the military razed 1,500 Rohingya homes. They used rape as a weapon of war, and there is documented evidence for that, and they basically have forced 67,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh and over 100,000 into the camps.

This is tragic, and clearly there was an overreaction by the military in the worst possible way. It is our responsibility as members of the delegation—we have met with the foreign minister and we will be meeting with the shadow foreign minister—to talk through some of the more creative ways that we can work with Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi's government to try to limit, as much as possible, these human rights abuses against the Rohingya, allow them out of the camps which they are staying in, and provide real freedoms for that population.

 

Speech by Luke Gosling MP:

Mr GOSLING (Solomon) (12:49): Like many of the speakers, I was fortunate enough to participate in that bipartisan parliamentary visit to Myanmar earlier this year, and I gained a better understanding of our investments in that country. We were able to meet with a range of ministers, officials and NGOs, and I also explored opportunities for the Northern Territory and Myanmar to strengthen our relationship, not just in terms of trade but in terms of supporting universities and other things. It is very important that we establish strong relationships with countries in our region, particularly those that many countries have had little contact with in recent years. Myanmar is embarking on a process of democratisation but is also—coming from a low base, granted—one of the fastest-growing GDPs in Asia.

I want to touch on some of those strategic issues to do with Myanmar, and why it is important for the Australian government to invest, before I look at some future directions. As far as threats to regional security are concerned, the situation in the Rakhine State may lead to increased refugee push factors and we have also seen that there have been some influences coming into the Rakhine State from the Middle East. There is a risk that people will increase their support to acts of political violence in that border area. It is a concern we should not ignore and we should increase our engagement with the Myanmar military.

Economically, Myanmar has a population of almost 60 million and, as it expands, we have seen Australian companies, like Woodside, work with Myanmar, but any instability will mean its ability to prosper and to use its resources will decline. Geopolitically, Myanmar borders two of the world's biggest powers—China and India— and as world focus continues to be on Asia Myanmar will be right in the thick of it. The stability of Myanmar and its ability to have positive relations with other members of ASEAN is very important and I commend Myanmar and the government of Indonesia for working together through some of these issues. They are some of the reasons we need to continue investing in our relationship with Myanmar.

I thank the Australian Save the Children Foundation organisation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and I thank the professionals on posts with the Department of Foreign Affairs, in Yangon, who looked after us well. The cuts to foreign development assisted by the current federal government are unfortunate because our good work there is being undermined by a lack of resources, particularly at this point in their transition when we need to be supporting them in coming to terms with new power relationships within the state.

We need to be more deeply engaged with not only their military but also with every facet of their government. I am not taking anything away from the work of our program there, on the ground, but we need to look at ways we can improve our military cooperation. There are a number of things we can do and I will be speaking further with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence about some of those ideas. We need to recognise that the Myanmar military still plays a leading role in the affairs of that country. They are constitutionally endowed with a lot of power not only in home affairs and border protection but also in the police, who come under home affairs, and defence—those big three key ministries—so that they still run.

I, like the government, welcome Kofi Annan's interim report on recommendations. It is an important process underway in Myanmar and we should continue to support it. In the report there are recommendations around closing camps, reintegrating people and setting up a body to bring people into harmony. They are important recommendations and should be considered. I seek permission to table a copy of Kofi Annan's interim report and recommendations.

Leave granted.

Mr GOSLING: Thank you, and I thank everyone who looked after us on that trip. We have a long way to go but we must increase our engagement with that country.

 

 

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