Monday, 16 October 2017
Recently in Sydney I met members of the Rohingya community. Their sadness was immense. One man told me that he had just heard that both his brother and his father had been killed. Others were desperate for news of their family and loved ones. Today in this parliament, representatives of the majority of aid groups operating in and around Myanmar provided briefings to MPs. They described an extraordinary situation, a most critical humanitarian emergency that requires a rapid and generous response from the Australian government. More organisations and more countries need to call urgently for an end to the violence and for the right of the Rohingyas to return to their homes and their land. And more humanitarian aid is needed.
A UN report released last week has confirmed the brutal attacks against Rohingya in the north of Myanmar's Rakhine state to have been well organised, coordinated and systematic. This report highlights why the Australian government must take a moral stand and defend the rights of the Rohingya people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report states:
Credible information indicates that the Myanmar security forces purposely destroyed the property of the Rohingyas, targeting their houses, fields, food-stocks, crops, livestock and even trees, to render the possibility of the Rohingya returning to normal lives and livelihoods in the future in northern Rakhine almost impossible.
They used a strategy—and this is also from the report:
… to “instil deep and widespread fear and trauma - physical, emotional and psychological” among the Rohingya population.
The report, by a team from the UN human rights office who met with the newly arrived Rohingya in Cox's Bazar from 14 to 24 September this year, confirmed that human rights violations committed against the Rohingya population were carried out by Myanmar security forces, often in concert with armed Rakhine Buddhist individuals. The new report is based on some 65 interviews with individuals and groups. These reports were corroborated by other witnesses from NGOs and Bangladeshi staff.
I was particularly disturbed to read that the educated in the Rohingya society, such as teachers, businesspeople and religious and community leaders—people with influence—have been targeted in an effort to diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge. In a statement made on 19 September, Aung San Suu Kyi claimed that the Myanmar security forces have not conducted any further clearance operations since 5 September. However, on 17 September, the UN team was able to identify columns of smoke rising above the Naf River in northern Rakhine state. Furthermore, satellite imagery indicates that the burning of villages continued weeks after 5 September. Statements from the Bangladeshi border guards' representatives and other actors close to the border also indicate that explosions, shootings and burnings were heard and seen after 5 September.
Among many shocking reports, details of extreme sexual violence stand out for their brutality. Witness statements indicate that some previously abducted girls returned with vaginal bleeding which continued for days. One statement indicated that a knife was used during a gang rape of a female victim. Another statement received by an extremely credible source referred to a woman whose stomach was slit open after she was raped. Witnesses stated that her unborn baby was killed by the alleged perpetrator with a knife, and that her nipples were cut off. I give these shocking details because, sadly, rape continues to be a weapon of war, and we need to speak out about it. Personnel in refugee clinics and local hospitals corroborated the information that female Rohingya victims were being treated by their medical staff for injuries received through sexual and gender based violence.
At the briefing with aid groups today, we were informed that 536,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar in recent weeks. All up, aid organisations are assisting 1.2 million people. These are the Rohingyas who have fled—about half a million in recent weeks—and the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas who are already in parts of Bangladesh around the border, and then the impacted communities. All up, of these 1.2 million, about 80 per cent are women and very young children.
On top of this, the United Nations human rights office is gravely concerned for the safety of thousands of Rohingyas who remain in northern Rakhine state, amid reports that the violence is still ongoing. So far, humanitarian and human rights workers and the media have been denied access to the area.
I was also disturbed, in the context of this violence—and you start to wonder why it is occurring—to learn that Myanmar recently adopted a new law which is very relevant to why the crimes against humanity are occurring. The new law stipulates that land that has been burnt becomes government-managed land. I have just given the details from the United Nations report that has information about the imagery from satellites showing the extent of that burning. Half of the Rohingya villages in the north of Rakhine have been burnt. The burnt land is clearly on its way to being used in some way. And what you then find out is that economic zones are being established in this area. Three economic zones already exist on land where Rohingyas had lived in the past. Now there is a plan for another economic zone, which could well explain the reason for one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. So what we are seeing is ruthless ethnic cleansing. The United Nations Secretary-General and many others have described it in that way. The French President has called it genocide. Clearly, that is what is occurring. And now we see that there is a profit motive here. The pattern is that the economic zone is being formed, and it is being formed on the basis of this extreme violence perpetrated against Rohingyas, who then see their land cleared. So the Australian government needs a comprehensive response here. Protection needs to be at the centre of the response. The government should also urge the UNHCR to coordinate a comprehensive protection assessment and response across the whole refugee population.
I also believe the Australian government needs to look beyond the immediate needs and support and invest in development of a longer term refugee response considering the high likelihood that this will become a massive, protracted refugee crisis. We clearly need to look to the long term here as well as assisting the people to relieve their suffering and their hunger right at the moment. Also, the government can play a significant role by championing a long-term political and durable solution for Rohingya refugees to enable their safe and voluntary return to Myanmar.
There are many reasons that the Australian government needs to become involved here. One of the things that was also raised at the briefings today was that our government should urge the United Nations to follow its human rights up-front mechanism and specifically urge the United Nations to put in place an effective, strong and principled country team. Fantastic work has been done by so many of these aid organisations. They now need the backing of the Australian government.
I spoke about the economic zones. I want to give a little bit more detail because I find it deeply alarming that these zones can be built on land where once these Rohingyas lived—and, now that they have lost it, they have been totally alienated because of this new law that 'burnt land is government land'. On 1 September the Burmese government announced that the construction of the Maungdaw economic zone would start when the current situation in the area has calmed down. I understand it could start quite soon. The government has selected land as a proposed location for this economic zone. It will host garment factories, refrigeration units for fish, a fuel station and commodity and industrial showrooms. Also, offshore oil and gas companies are very interested in this area. I understand that an Australian company, Woodside Energy, is already operating there. Clearly we need to look at this very closely. Is it appropriate that Australian companies, or any companies, are operating on land where there has been ethnic cleansing? There needs to be a lot more work done here to ensure that there is a clear, solid humanitarian response and long-term assistance to resolve this situation.