In the paved backyard beyond a dishevelled house on Haldon Street, young and middle-aged men are arriving one by one. Traversing a concrete path that skirts the property’s boundary they cross the courtyard and arrive at a tiny, cubby-house-like shed. Inside the makeshift office, where there is barely enough room for the dozen people gathered, tales of mass killings are being gathered and annotated.
Lakemba, in Sydney’s south-west, is a hub for Australia’s Rohingya community, to which the men belong. Since violence against the ethnic minority group in Myanmar erupted in late August, rising to a level the United Nations has described as “ethnic cleansing”, the community has convulsed as family members disappear and rumours trickle out from Rakhine state.
Rumours at first, and then more. Connected to large extended families back in Myanmar, the community in Lakemba has been receiving evidence of violence in real time in the form of photos, videos, and witness accounts smuggled out of the shuttered state via messaging apps and social media. Some are pulled off social media. Other come directly from friends and relatives still in Myanmar.
The group of men assembled in the cubby-house office are executive members of Burmese Rohingya Community Australia (BRCA), a community group desperately working to respond to the crisis.
Before the meeting starts, one man produces audio sent to him by an aunt who remains in Rakhine state. As the recording plays, her words quickly break to quivers and then tears. Her nephew translates briefly: she is describing a mass killing she says she was witness to, in which men were taken from a group sheltering in a secluded jungle home and executed. On returning to the village, locals performed a head-count: 81 men were missing.
Crikey is not able to independently verify the account.
Another man shows me photos of wooden rubble, smouldering beneath a pile of iron roofing. He says they were taken earlier in the week after seven houses in his home village were burnt down. His relatives are stranded: too far from the border to flee by foot but clearly unsafe where they are.
Daniel Taylor, an Australian migration agent with close ties to Lakemba’s Rohingya community, says he has been shown an image of a charred body. The image is understood to have been sent directly by a family member who remains in the village.
According to Ahsan Haque, BRCA’s media officer, there are now hundreds — if not thousands — of images and files held by the community. BRCA is trying to collect them, turning itself into a makeshift archive and off-site fact-finding mission. On a little table is an A4 sheet of paper with the names of villages and numbers next to them, tallied together, a running score sheet of the missing.
The hope of the project is that it will form part of an international effort to stop Myanmar’s government enabling or pursuing any more violence. The more probable utility, however, is historical. The men believe they are recording an attempted genocide.
While documenting, they are also advocating.
Haque appeared on Q&A this week, pushing panellists to explain why Myanmar should escape sanctions, then privately confronting Senator Penny Wong after being dissatisfied with the responses. Haque says he has phoned the offices of virtually every Coalition senator in recent weeks, encouraging them to support Senate motions put by the Greens and Labor.
But at this stage there is no support for his call for sanctions.
In response to questions from Crikey, Greens Senator Nick McKim said his party backs travel bans and asset freezes on Myanmar’s security officials implicated in abuse.
“We also want see a ban on all assistance and cooperation with Myanmar’s military, and a ban on any financial transactions with key military owned enterprises,” he said.
McKim earlier called for Australia to accept 20,000 additional Rohingya refugees.
Labor Senator Lisa Singh told Crikey that “if sanctions are to be effective they must be supported by the whole international community, which is not yet the case”.
Trevor Wilson, a visiting fellow at Australian National University and ambassador to Myanmar from 2000-2003, says Australia’s options for pressuring the government in Naypyidaw may be limited.
“Australia is primarily an aid donor; I mean that’s the main role we have. We’re friendly with their government but not an ally or anything like that.”
Wilson says after Australia lifted economic sanctions on Myanmar in 2012, some self-imposed restrictions on military-to-military contact and intelligence sharing have remained, though Australian police do provide some training assistants to their counterparts.
Earlier in September, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced $5 million in funding to help displaced Rohingya, a number that was topped up with a further $15 million this week. As noted by The Guardian, the government continues to offer payments to Rohingya asylum seekers being held in Australian backed detention centres, encouraging them to return to their crisis plagued homeland.
As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee to Bangladesh, BRCA is planning to send aid directly, and some in Lakemba are taking drastic measures to assist their relatives back home.
Among them is 30-year-old Sajeda, who lost contact with three of her Myanmar-based siblings in recent weeks. Having never travelled to the country before, she is asking the Australian government permission to fly to Bangladesh.
Unsure of their location, or if they are even still alive, she will head to a nation of 163 million people and try to find her siblings among the burgeoning refugee camps that house those who survive the exodus.