Hosting Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi would once have been a significant honour; now a visit from her is marked with a badge of shame.

The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people since August 25, 2017, has been met with silence, and some say complicity, from Myanmar’s once-celebrated leader.

The US Holocaust Museum even revoked its Elie Wiesel Award, stating that Suu Kyi had failed to live up to the vision of a world “where people confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity”.

With the Rohingya refugee count in Bangladesh now close to 700,000, and the recent revelation that up to 43,000 are missing, presumed killed, the scale of the crisis only continues to mount.

For the Australian government, the upcoming ASEAN conference this weekend provides an opportunity to raise vital questions concerning the Rohingya crisis, and to confront a leader who has consistently refused to engage with the international community on the issue.

Yet is such a confrontation likely to occur?

The Australian government’s response to the Rohingya crisis so far has been weak.

The Australian government has provided up to $30 million in aid assistance by way of Save the Children, Oxfam and other NGOs.

Yet even as recently as October 2017 — two months after the attacks on Rohingya villages became apparent — the Australian government was still touting a plan to pay Rohingya refugees on Manus Island to return to Myanmar.

Australia’s relationship with the Myanmar Army — the Tatmadaw — has also come under scrutiny.

The blatant role of the Tatmadaw in this most recent spate of ethnic cleansing has seen the US, UK, Canada, France and the EU cut ties with Myanmar’s military.

However, the Turnbull government has refused to do so.

Instead, the Australian government will spend up to $400,000 on training for the Tatmadaw in 2017-2018, including English lessons and participation in military exercises.

According to a Defence spokesperson, the continuation of training is in order to “promote professionalism and adherence to international lawswithin Myanmar’s armed forces.

Yet if this is the aim, then the partnership is clearly failing, and needs to be reviewed immediately.

Similarly, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has provided $66.4 million in development aid to Myanmar in 2017/2018.

One of the stated objectives is to secure “peace and stability” in Rakhine state, where the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya has occurred.  

Ostensibly, the aims of DFAT’s investment is to support Myanmar “to become a party to international human rights treaties and implement international human rights norms”.

Such an investment in the region has clearly failed, and strong questions should be raised of Suu Kyi as to why.

That Australian companies such as Woodside Petroleum are exploring for natural gas in Rakhine state also gives the government additional leverage to pressure the Myanmar government to act on the issue of Rohingya.

This should include not only the right of Rohingyan people to repatriation, but the right to full citizenship, and a commitment that such attacks will never happen again.

The current talks of repatriation between Bangladesh and Myanmar, however, remain vague and are clearly diluted by the recent revelations that the Myanmar Army is now building military bases on land that used to house Rohingya villages and mosques.

Whether the ethnic cleansing and forced exodus of 700,000 Rohingya people into Bangladesh is part of a concerted effort to procure vacant land for military and corporate enterprise is another tough question that should be asked of Suu Kyi.

Currently, the Myanmar government and military are predominantly made up of dominant Bamar Buddhists. It has been in part due to this mono-culture in every avenue of power that has led to the hardened xenophobia against the Rohingya, and other ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar.

Opening up the realms of power to be more inclusive will be one step to ensuring DFAT’s aims of securing “peace and stability” in Rakhine and empowering Myanmar to “to become a party to international human rights treaties and implement international human rights norms”.

Yet whether Malcolm Turnbull will take the opportunity to tackle the tough issues with an equally tough woman — known in Myanmar simply as “the Lady” — is highly unlikely.

In fact, an Australian government outline of the ASEAN talks reiterate that while the Rohingya crisis “could arise in bilateral discussions, they are not likely to be considered formally in the multilateral Special Summit in Sydney”.

And with Malcolm Turnbull’s recently announced plan to turn Australia into a regional defence exporter, one wonders what the nature of the talks will actually be.

Peter Fray

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