Burma: Rakhine State


March 20, 2017

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. It is a difficult process, but we will do our best as members of the delegation, and I know we will continue to keep an effort going for the people of Myanmar and for the Rohingya.