Australia urged to cut ties with Myanmar military over Rohingya atrocities

Amnesty pushes for support to try 13 security officials in the international criminal court

Amnesty International has urged Australia to cut all financial ties with Myanmar’s military, and to support a push to try 13 of the country’s most senior security officials in the international criminal court over atrocities committed against the ethnic minority Rohingya.

In the wake of the Myanmar military-led pogrom against the Rohingya in Rakhine state last year, militaries all over the world, including those of the European Union, Britain, the United States, France and Canada, cut ties with the Tatmadaw over its “disproportionate use of force” that “strongly indicates a deliberate action to expel a minority”.

Australia, however, has remained in cooperation with the Myanmar military, offering $400,000 towards training in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, peacekeeping and English classes.

“Australia must suspend all military cooperation and assistance with the Myanmar military,” the human rights lawyer and Amnesty crisis campaigns coordinator Diana Sayed said, as Amnesty released a report naming 13 security officials it argues should face trial.

“It’s just outrageous that Australia maintains this relationship which all other countries have been very unequivocal in cutting.

“It’s not a big amount of money but it is symbolic. It will make sure we are on the right side of history when it comes to a consistent approach on human rights.”

The rationale for Australia’s involvement with the Myanmar military, which also dominates the country’s parliament and controls key government posts, is that through engagement Australia gains leverage, can assist with Myanmar’s transition to democracy, and educate its military’s senior officers.

A briefing note produced by the defence department and revealed under freedom of information legislation, says: “This engagement is designed to expose the Tatmadaw to the ways of a modern, professional defence force and highlight the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law.”

Australia has also donated $70m to help the Rohingya who have fled over the border to the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, and has earmarked $76.9m in official development assistance for Myanmar this financial year.

The Amnesty report released in New York on Wednesday names top military and police officials allegedly implicated in the murder, rape and torture of Rohingya people. Chief among those named is Myanmar’s army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who in April met Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar, Nicholas Coppel, in Naypyitaw for talks on bilateral cooperation in defence services and the situation in Rakhine.

Also named was the Vice Senior General Soe Win, with whom Australia’s army chief, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, held talks at a military conference in Seoul last September.

Both Ming Aung Hlaing and Soe Win had previously been sanctioned by Australia between 2007 and 2012.

General Maung Maung Soe, the commander of western command in Rakhine state, was also named. The Myanmar government fired him this week after direct sanctions were imposed against him and six other military officials by the EU.

More than 700,000 Rohingya were forced to flee a systematic campaign of violence beginning in August last year that saw villages razed, men, women and children murdered, and rape used as a weapon of war.

The UN has described the situation as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. Myanmar denies the accusations.

Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar on an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar on an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh. Photograph: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

The Muslim Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority inside Buddhist-majority Myanmar. They are not formally recognised as a minority in Myanmar, and have faced generations of persecution and oppression, are denied citizenship and freedom of movement, have previously had limits placed on the size of their families, and are restricted in their access to healthcare and education.

The Myanmar military has consistently claimed its operation last August was in response to attacks on military officials by the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

But Amnesty wants countries, including Australia, to support a push to have the 13 officials tried before the ICC. Its report details allegations that soldiers were given orders to shoot any Rohingya if there was any ARSA activity in the area or anyone did any “wrong”.

In an audio recording obtained by Amnesty, someone purported to be a Myanmar military officer tells a Rohingya resident of Inn Din: “We got an order to burn down the entire village if there is any disturbance. If you villagers aren’t living peacefully, we will destroy everything.”

Amnesty has gathered significant details about attacks on three townships – the villages of Chut Pyin, Min Gyi and Maung Nu – where it is alleged thousands of Rohingya women, men and children were murdered: bound and summarily executed; shot while running away; or burned to death inside their homes.

Amnesty also interviewed 20 women and girls who were raped, 11 of whom were gang-raped, and 23 men and two boys who allege security forces arrested and tortured them.

Last month the Myanmar government announced the establishment of an “independent commission of inquiry” to investigate allegations of human rights violations “as part of its national initiative to address reconciliation, peace, stability and development in Rakhine”.

The Myanmar government has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, so that verified displaced people could “return voluntarily in safety and dignity”.

But Amnesty said previous government and military-led investigations had been whitewashes that had exculpated officials for gross abuses.

“The international community should not be fooled by this latest attempt to shield perpetrators from accountability,” said Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser, Matthew Wells, adding: “The United Nations security council must stop playing politics and urgently refer the situation in Myanmar to the international criminal court, impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar and impose targeted financial sanctions against senior officials responsible for serious violations and crimes.”

ICC judges have met to discuss a possible investigation and prosecution of Myanmar over atrocities against the Rohingya. Evidence has been sent by a coalition of Bangladeshi organisation to ICC prosecutors, and the legal argument for an ICC investigation is being led by the prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

Myanmar is not a member state of the ICC, but its actions, in pushing Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh – which is a member – potentially bring it within the ICC’s remit.


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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