House debates

Monday, 14 July 2014

Private Members' Business

Human Rights in Myanmar

11:03 am

Photo of Melissa ParkeMelissa Parke (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to amend private member's business notice No. 1 in the terms circulated to honourable members.

Leave granted.

I move notice No.1, as amended, relating to human rights in Myanmar:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) the sectarian unrest in parts of Burma, including Rakhine State, but also in the Mandalay, Bago, and Rangoon regions. Of particular humanitarian concern is Rakhine State, where around 140,000 people have been displaced for almost two years;

(b) Human Rights Watch released two reports on the unrest in Rakhine State and the situation of Rohingya Muslims there which raise concerns about persecution against Rohingya and outlines the dire humanitarian situation in Rakhine State;

(c) Rohingya in Rakhine State were unable to self-identify in the national census in Burma in April 2014;

(d) on 27 May 2014 Burma’s state-run media published a draft law on religious conversions that would impose restrictions on citizens wishing to change their religion, which would encourage further repression and violence against Muslims and other religious minorities;

(e) the Australian Government continues to assist affected people in Rakhine State through direct humanitarian assistance, and has provided almost $10.7 million in humanitarian assistance since the violence in 2012, making Australia one of the largest humanitarian donors to Rakhine State; and

(f) significant acts of discrimination or violence against any persons in Burma will impact on Burma’s international standing and consequently harm its bilateral relationships; and

(2) calls on the Australian Government to urge the Myanmar Government to:

(a) elevate its efforts to resolve sectarian unrest in parts of Burma and provide a safe and secure environment for aid personnel so they can continue to provide vital humanitarian assistance to people in need, including in in Rakhine State;

(b) allow the establishment of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Burma with a full rights protection, promotion and technical assistance mandate, and permit unfettered access to all areas where sectarian violence has occurred;

(c) permit Médecins Sans Frontières to freely enter and operate in Rakhine state, and provide humanitarian assistance to all persons needing it;

(d) impartially investigate and bring to justice all those responsible for abuses, regardless of their status, position, or rank;

(e) ensure the security of all persons in Rakhine state while protecting human rights, including the right to freedom of movement, maintaining proper rule of law and good governance that includes an end to all discriminatory policies against Rohingya;

(f) take steps to remove or amend any current laws which discriminate against minority ethnic or religious groups, including the 1982 Citizenship Law;

(g) abandon the proposed law on religious conversions that would politicise religion and permit government intrusion on decisions of faith;

(h) ensure right to fair trial to all persons held in jails in Burma;

(i) ensure all local laws are non-discriminatory and fair to all people of Burma, and respect the rights to movement, religion, work and access to health care and education;

(j) condemn violence and abuse inflicted on any persons, ensuring proper judicial procedures are applied;

(k) ensure Burma security forces protect all communities equally and uphold the law of the state;

(l) initiate appropriate investigations into incidents of violence involving minority ethnic or religious groups, such as the Du Cheer Yar Tan incident in Maungdaw township in January 2014

(m) support the citizenship rights of Rohingya and reconciliation of local communities;

(n) ensure the rights of women by protecting a women’s right to choose whom they will marry without regard to religious faith, and permit persons the right to freely choose the size of their family;

(o) provide appropriate humanitarian assistance, including adequate shelter, and grant access by humanitarian organisations, to those affected by the unrest; and

(p) ensure that any return of internally displaced peoples to their place of origin is conducted voluntarily, in safety and with dignity.

The ethnic and sectarian conflict in Burma continues to involve serious and persistent outbreaks of murder and violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority of some 800,000 people who are concentrated in Rakhine state, which in the north borders Bangladesh. Though Burma is home to more than 130 recognised ethnic groups, the Rohingya have been denied recognition and the government continues to regard this group as comprising an illegal migration from Bangladesh, despite evidence that Muslim communities have lived in Rakhine state for centuries.

There is substantial evidence of widespread discrimination against the Rohingya, and this has been enabled and exacerbated by both government policy and government inaction. As a result, the Rohingya have been subject to very serious oppression and to human rights abuses, including violence, dispossession and forcible displacement. The purpose and effect of the mistreatment of the Rohingya has been a form of ethnic cleansing. People have been forced out of their homes—out of the towns and cities where they have lived all their lives—and into camps where conditions are dangerous to health, especially now in the monsoon season.

The oppression of the Rohingya has led many to flee by boat, and this in turn has resulted in deaths at sea, in detention and incarceration without due process of asylum claims, and in the exploitation, ransoming or trafficking of vulnerable people, especially through Thailand. Unfortunately, the transition that took place in Burma in 2011 from military based authoritarianism to a fledgling form of democratic civilian government has released some long-contained antipathies in places like Rakhine state—and certainly the Rohingyas have been comprehensively targeted since that time. Conflict between Buddhists and Rohingyas in Rakhine state in 2012 resulted in nearly 200 people killed and more than 100,000 Rohingyas displaced.

With international concern growing, Burma's President Thein Sein commissioned a report into the situation in Rakhine, but its recommendations, released in April last year, were in large part unhelpful in moving towards a lasting settlement of the issue. The report referred to the Rohingya as 'Bengalis', a clear suggestion that they emanate from and belong in Bangladesh, and also made reference to the need for family planning advice, which adverts to a common prejudice regarding the birth-rate of Muslim minority groups. Other government initiatives have involved seeking to register Rohingyas for resettlement, but this first required them to identify as Bengalis, which, understandably, they refuse to do. In May this year a draft law was published which would ban religious conversions without prior consent—another measure that reinforces a prejudicial perception that the Muslim minority is seeking to grow through intermarriage. This approach is not a recipe for peace and reconciliation, let alone for the sensible and proper integration of the Rohingya within the mainstream of civic life in Burma, with the human rights and protections that such inclusion would guarantee.

I am glad that Australia has made a contribution to addressing the crisis in Rakhine state, including through the provision of nearly $6 million in humanitarian aid, which makes us one of the largest contributors of assistance. But there is more that can be done; and there is more that we must do. Only through persistent and coordinated international pressure can the plight of the Rohingyas be alleviated. In circumstances where the Burmese government's capacity and willingness to prevent further oppression of the Rohingyas is inadequate and uncertain, it is essential that there be greater scrutiny and direct on-the-ground assistance provided by relevant UN agencies and by humanitarian NGOs.

As it stands, the involvement of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights occurs by deployment of personnel from Bangkok when it would be far preferable if that office could maintain an appropriately resourced presence in Burma itself. Similarly, the banning of Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, from operating in Rakhine state is unacceptable and must be protested at the highest level. Medecins Sans Frontieres has been the principal provider of health care in Rakhine, operating nine clinics in towns across the state, but it was ordered by the Burmese government to cease providing this critical function on the grounds of alleged impartiality shown towards the Rohingya. The real reason may be that MSF has been prepared to report accurately on atrocities committed against the Rohingya, such as the incident at Maungdaw earlier this year, where 48 villagers were killed.

In April, the Asia Society announced that a team from Reuters had won the 2014 Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia for their series of investigative reports on the 'dirty war' against the Rohingya people. I encourage interested members to visit the Asia Society website, which includes links to all the Reuters reports and which, in addition to presenting both the complexity of the big picture and the tragedy of individual human stories, also reminds us of the importance of free, courageous journalism at a time when journalists like Peter Greste and many others are silenced by regimes that would prefer to operate without criticism or scrutiny.

Finally, I thank the government for supporting this motion and those members who are contributing to this debate. I am sure that there is a shared recognition of the terrible mistreatment of the Rohingya minority by their own government and a shared desire to see Australia take all appropriate action to help bring this oppression to an end.

Photo of Karen AndrewsKaren Andrews (McPherson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

11:08 am

Photo of Philip RuddockPhilip Ruddock (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise not only to support the motion but also to second it. I am delighted to do so. I thank the member for Fremantle for her consultation about the form which it might take and I commend her from bringing it forward. Australia, and I have said this frequently, is an example to the rest of the world, where people of different faiths, different religions, different cultures and different races can function effectively as a community—committed Australians. I am very proud of what we are able to achieve and I say to other people in other parts of the world: they should look to Australia as an example, because it is possible.

I thought at the time when Burma was able to change fundamentally from a military dictatorship that we would see a change for all of the people of Burma through democratisation. When we were welcoming Aung San Suu Kyi to Australia, as somebody who has fought for it, I saw that as an ideal opportunity. I said that to her in the context of the issue we are speaking about here today. This is a very special time for Burma to be able to demonstrate that you can bring about political change and it is change that is for the benefit of all the people of the nation.

It is in that context that I think we need to understand that the Rohingya are indigenous to Myanmar, Burma. They are today denied the right to be who they are. They have existed there for over 1,000 years. They have always identified themselves as Rohingya and I believe they will always do so, yet their identity is being destroyed. A recent census had questions that excluded people identifying as Rohingya. Anybody who wrote this down was not even going to be counted. There has been displacement and violence. The citizenship law that formalised the exclusion of their nationality restricts movement, marriage and now religious conversion. Rohingya have a ban on having more than two children, on land rights and on education. They are treated as illegal. On top of that there are restrictions, as the member for Fremantle noted, on humanitarian groups being able to have offices in Burma, Myanmar, for them. These people have been left to either leave or fend for themselves.

I have met with delegations. I have spoken about this issue; I addressed a conference at the University of Western Sydney on this matter. I have met with the president of the local group of the Rohingya, Dr Myint. I know that they all are very concerned. They do not wish to be seen as Bangladeshis. They do not want to identify as another nationality. They want to remain in their homeland. They want to remain as Rohingya. They want freedom.

I am pleased that our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, who recently visited Burma, had discussions with President Thein Sein, with members of the government and with human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. She met with representatives of both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities during her visit. I am informed that she raised directly the human rights issues with the government during this time. She has informed me that the government is very concerned about this issue. I think that is as it should be.

We have been providing aid to assist with humanitarian needs in the Rakhine state. The government will continue to do so. I am told that in 2014-15 we will increase development assistance in Burma to an estimated $90 million. I join with the member for Fremantle in calling for the government to commit itself to a reform process, to allow humanitarian assistance and protection, to give people the ability to enter the areas of Rakhine and set up offices and to allow the UNHCR to be there. I join with her in calling for fair trials for all those people held in prison and to abandon harsh laws and further laws on restricting religion, land rights and like matters. I think the citizenship act has to be amended. I urge the government to take positive and necessary measures to prevent further violence. I call upon the government to provide its own humanitarian assistance and to return internally displaced people to their own homes.

This is an important time for the future of this nation. How they deal with this issue will determine the way in which the country will be seen. I commend the member for Fremantle for giving us all an opportunity to speak about this matter in a bipartisan way as we seek to protect the rights of individuals.

11:13 am

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Whilst the reform process continues in Burma and there are positive aspects, on the other hand Human Rights Watch speaks of an uneven reform process and laws being enforced inconsistently. Nevertheless, the manifest main problem facing this country at the moment is the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. I think it is very important that we have a voice on this issue because we have a situation where even those people we associate with the call for democracy and human rights in Burma—whether it is the first NLD delegation to come to this country, come to the dining room and discuss the issue with us, Aung San Suu Kyi's performance at the Sydney Opera House or a group of democracy 88 activists who came here in the last parliamentary sitting—have been found somewhat wanting on this issue. There has clearly been reluctance by the reform forces in Burma to confront the issue because of the controversy and unpopularity of the situation.

I am pleased that we do join with the US Congress, through the intervention of James P McGovern—a Democrat from Massachusetts—who, on 4 May, resolved to call for the end of the persecution of the Rohingya people and spoke of the need to recognise them as an ethnic group. He said:

The situation is dire and rapidly deteriorating.

It is particularly important that those people who have been seeking to diminish the authority of the government in Burma over a long period of time, and who are still campaigning for constitutional change, and at the same time reiterate that they are absolutely dissatisfied with the situation of the Rohingya. It is not only what is happening to those people in Burma; it is, as some speakers indicated earlier, what is happening to them once they are expelled. There was a situation where Thai authorities, at one stage, drove boats into the sea and refugee claimants were forced to be drowned in their own waters. We have got a situation where refugee claimants, and others in Thailand, are being hugely exploited in the prawn industry and the broader aquaculture industry. We have got a situation in Bangladesh where their religious confrères condemn them to very third-rate conditions. There are no proper camps and people are basically exploited in Bangladesh once expelled from Burma. Indisputably, this question of their definition and their rights in the country is a concern.

On 30 March 2014, The Hindu quoted government spokesman, Ye Htut, as saying:

If a household wants to identify themselves as 'Rohingya', we will not register it.

People do not have the right to self-define, as we do in Australia. They are basically being told that they are Bengalis, full-stop, or they are not counted. MP Aung Mya Kyaw went on to say:

They will only write down 'Bengali' because Rohingya doesn’t exist.

The previous speaker made it clear that there has been a Muslim presence, not only the Rohingya but also others groups as well, in the country for 1,000 years. Yes, there might have been some flow of Muslims into Burma in recent decades because of overpopulation, despite the historic efforts of the Bangladesh government on birth control, but indisputably there has been a strong presence. It has only been since the 1970s that we have seen this very strong, Buddhist, chauvinistic move going very strongly against them. We heard earlier today of restrictions with regard to marriage and the number of children they can have, and now a contrived attempt in respect of conversions to further restrict them.

We had a situation in 2012 where we received various estimates about how many people were displaced. Let us, for the sake of argument, accept the government's position of 50,000. That was accompanied by uncounted, wide variations of death estimates, the destruction of houses and the destruction of shops, and that has continued through 2013. There was violence in Meiktila in March 2013—there was knowledge of that and the information was suppressed. In August there was the burning of houses and shops. In October last, at least seven people were murdered and another 50 in March of 2014. It is a very sad tale of a lack of intervention by the government to protect these people and, in some cases, collusion of police in their suppression.

In giving foreign aid to the country, it is important that Australia is out there campaigning, that Medecins Sans Frontieres are allowed back into the area. One of the criticisms is, from Human Rights Watch and others, that we cannot get information—the government is suppressing this information. It is important that Australia does exercise its influence on the matter.

11:18 am

Photo of Teresa GambaroTeresa Gambaro (Brisbane, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the motion that has been put before the House by the member for Fremantle. I thank her for her ongoing commitment to this issue and, in particular, for putting this motion here today so that we can all join with her.

At the onset, and by way of clarification, the Australian government is very concerned and is watching developments in Burma very closely. I would also like to thank the member for amending her motion to make use of the word 'Burma' as a term that now appears in Australian formal government communications. The Burmese embassy was advised about these changes on 8 November. Australia is a major donor and is increasing our development assistance, which is very important, to $90 million in 2014-15.

I had the privilege of visiting Burma two years ago and saw some of the reform processes being undertaken. Australia is committed to helping Burma through the next stages of its development. I met a number of government agencies, including the UNDP, to see how the economic, political, financial and health reforms are going to take place. Burma is at a crossroads in its development. Sadly, all the goodwill in the world can exist but if we do not solve the issues and stop the violence in Rakhine state the rest of the world will be watching very closely.

There is an opportunity here for the country to move forward. The Abbott government hopes that any constitutional amendments will provide for a strong and inclusive democratic system in Burma, but ultimately what happens in the future is a matter for the Burmese people. Burma's government has made notable progress in improving its human rights record since 2011, but there is so much more to do. The challenges remain: we see the hostilities, the tensions and the violence, particularly involving ethnic minority groups in Rakhine state. It would be great to see independence of the judiciary. There are ongoing allegations of abuse by the military, including the use of torture, and the land grabbing must be reformed. They cannot continue to exist.

Violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingyas in 2012 left 140,000 internally displaced people, most of them Rohingyas. I have seen many of them in camps. The situation remains bleak. From 26 to 27 March, violence targeting UN officers and international NGOs resulted in the destruction of property and the relocation of aid workers, including Australians. Improvements have included the release of more than 1,100 political prisoners, the establishment of a national human rights commission and greater freedom of the press. Australia has raised our concerns about the situation for the Rohingyas, and about human rights more generally, directly with the Burmese government. It was great to see my parliamentary colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Julie Bishop, issue a media release expressing concerns about the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state and the targeting of UN and NGO officers. Immigration Minister Morrison also raised Australia's concerns during his visit to Burma between 6 and 9 February this year. In her most recent visit to Burma, from 2 to 9 July, Minister Bishop again raised these human rights issues in meetings with leaders of the country. Minister Bishop met with representatives of the Rohingya and Rakhine communities during this visit.

Australia is very, very concerned about what is happening in Rakhine state. The Australian government continues to assist affected people in Rakhine state through direct humanitarian assistance and has provided $10.7 million since the violence in the 2012. This makes Australia one of the largest humanitarian aid donors to Rakhine state. Our support is provided on the basis of need and does not discriminate between ethnic groups. It also extends to providing an additional $12 million to support the broader peace process in Burma. Peace is absolutely essential for the country to achieve long-term stability and economic growth. Again, I thank the member for Fremantle for allowing us to join in a bipartisan way today on this motion.

11:24 am

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I join with other speakers in thanking the member for Fremantle for bringing forward this motion. It is a comprehensive motion which outlines in key point form a number of very serious issues facing the Rohingya within Burma but also goes to a number of specific actions that need to be supported by the Australian government and internationally to ensure that there is actually some effective change within that environment. A lot of thought has obviously gone into this motion.

I also visited Myanmar a couple of years ago with the member for Brisbane and others to view some of the aid programs that were being undertaken there by international organisations and also to try to get a sense of what was occurring within Burma with regard to the process of political change. I think we can all agree that there is no doubt that Burma has come from martial law and the extreme dictatorship of a military nature that had been in place since the sixties to, now, a situation where there have been genuine attempts to try to embrace democracy. It is a story that is still being written, but what we saw when we were there were certainly some movements in the right direction. I think we all encourage those movements, but the fact of the matter is there is still a long way to go. The journey the Burmese people are travelling and the Burmese political leadership are seeking to pursue has a long way to go.

Perhaps no group in Burmese society has further to go in terms of getting a fair go than the Rohingya. They are amongst a number of other ethnic minorities within greater Burma. The fact is that the circumstances faced by the Rohingya are particularly debilitating with regard to how they are treated. As other speakers have said, there is actually a situation where their ethnicity is not recognised. They have been recognised internationally as one of the largest stateless people in the international scene. They lack rights. They lack the capacity to be full members of civil society. They have been victim to persecution and to violence sometimes at the hands of extreme elements of the Buddhist community but often, sadly, in a situation where it is with a silent sense of approval or at the very least acquiescence from some elements of the Burmese government and civil society.

That is why it is important that international organisations are able to get into Burma and properly engage. That is why it is important that aid organisations can operate freely and safely within the areas where the Rohingya remain. That is why it is important that there is a conversation internationally but also an engagement with the Burmese leadership about why it is important that these issues are taken seriously. There is no doubt that under President Sein there have been steps taken in the right direction, and we welcome that and encourage it. But, as international citizens, we also have a responsibility to ensure that progress is ongoing and that those who have difficulty speaking for themselves are supported in international forums and in parliaments such as this. So I welcome the statements from members of the government about the actions that are being taken by the Foreign Minister and by the government as a whole with regard to aid and also raising issues with the Burmese leadership, but I think it is important that as a parliament we also make it clear that that is merely a step on the road.

The changes that are needed in terms of ensuring the Rohingya have the right to participate within Burmese society must take place. The opportunity for Rohingya families to be able to live, to gain an education, to celebrate their religion and also to be valuable members of civil society are all steps that needs to be taken. We need to combine encouragement to the Burmese leadership to keep moving forward and recognising the achievements that they have had so far with the fact that there must be an unwavering commitment from the international community to ensure that those who are not getting a fair go do get a fair go in Burma as it develops into the future. The member for Fremantle has done a credit to herself and to this House by raising these issues, by outlining what needs to be done and by ensuring that we encapsulate in a motion the sorts of actions that are required to ensure the Rohingya get a fair go.

11:29 am

Photo of Craig LaundyCraig Laundy (Reid, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have only been in parliament a short period of time, but far and away this is my favourite part: both sides coming together and speaking about issues that unite us, not divide us. In my way of thinking, we spend a lot of time in this place talking about things that divide us, and this is Australian parliament working its best. So I not only speak in favour of the motion but commend the member for Fremantle. Although we are on different political sides, there is not a lot that the member for Fremantle puts up to this chamber and to the main chamber that I do not agree with. Today is no exception to that.

The sectarian unrest in parts of Burma, and in particular in the Rakhine State, continues to be an issue of concern for the Australian government. Also of concern is the continuing impact of the 2012 violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya which left 140,000 people internally displaced. I note that this government has made regular representations directly to the Burmese government regarding this ongoing situation. The recent violence targeting UN officers and international NGOs is also deeply concerning—and I acknowledge the member for Fremantle's background working with the UN, and I know the pride and passion she has in that organisation. It is truly worrying, because these aid workers are needed, yet they have had to be safely relocated. Many of these aid organisations provide important humanitarian, medical and other assistance to communities throughout the Rakhine State, and the relocation of these workers has left many of Burma's most vulnerable people without access to medical services, water, food or sanitation.

Australia continues to assist the people of the Rakhine State through direct humanitarian assistance and has provided almost $10.7 million since the violence in 2012. This makes Australia one of the largest humanitarian donors to the Rakhine State. I commend the foreign minister for raising Australia's concerns relating to the most recent unrest, during her visit to Burma earlier this month. I also commend the immigration minister for similarly raising Australia's concern during his visit to Burma earlier this year.

The Australian government continues to watch the developments in Burma closely and acknowledges that significant challenges remain. Despite these remaining challenges, it is notable that the Burmese government has made progress on improving its human rights record since 2011. These improvements have seen the release of 1,100 political prisoners, the establishment of a national human rights commission and greater freedom of the press. A report on constitutional reform from Burma's parliament was provided in January this year, and a charter amendment implementation committee has been established to develop a law to amend the constitution. The Australian government supports this reform process. It is committed to helping Burma be a politically stable and economically prosperous country in our region again.

Of course, as an end result to these reforms, I hope any amendments promote a strong and inclusive democratic system in Burma. Looking to the future, it should of course be a priority for the Burmese government and its people to resolve the sectarian unrest in parts of Burma and provide a safe and secure environment for aid personnel. I also express my wish to see Burma's government implement reforms to reflect values that we, as Australians, hold so dear—values such as the removal of discriminatory legislation; the recognition of all minorities; a right to a fair trial for all; freedom of movement, religion, and work; and access to health care and education.

As I have mentioned before, the Australian government is one of the largest humanitarian donors to the Rakhine State. We are also a large donor to Burma as a whole. Australia increased its development assistance program to Burma to an estimated $90 million in 2014-15. Australia also provides $12 million to support the broader peace process in Burma, without which there is little chance of a stable and prosperous economy. Australia has long advocated with all the country's leaders for a resolution of the situation in Rakhine State. We will continue to do so in the future.

It is an honour to speak in favour of this motion brought by the member for Fremantle, recognising that, as the member for Reid, I have a diverse community. Having sat with and spoken to Rohingyan Muslims in my office and listened to their stories personally, this one is close to my heart. Congratulations for doing so and may we work together to make a change.

Debate adjourned.