We should put compassion for the Rohingya first, economics second

Published 05 April 2018
Image: Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Credit: John Owens (VOA)

A groundswell of support for the plight of Rohingya refugees is growing around the globe. It’s time for Australia to put compassion ahead of economics, according to a University of New England (UNE) commentator on Myanmar.

Following a protest by members of Queensland’s Rohingya community at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Dr Johanna Garnett said she hopes the world’s attention will finally be focussed on the humanitarian disaster on our doorstep.

The protesters were calling on the Commonwealth of Nations to stop the ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State in Myanmar (formerly Burma), where they say thousands of people have been killed.

Dr Garnett, a lecturer in Peace Studies at UNE, has conducted fieldwork in Myanmar since 2013 and visited Rakhine State as part of her work with young Buddhist farmers from the conflict zones. She applauded the protesters for giving voice to the “voiceless” when it appears Australia is not listening.

“As Amnesty International has commented, Australia’s silence is deafening,” Dr Garnett said. 

“Our Government’s ‘watch and wait’ policy is shocking in light of the suffering of these people. Australia has imposed sanctions in the past; an arms embargo, targeted financial sanctions and travel bans were instigated from 1991. However, financial sanctions and travel bans were lifted in 2012. Is it time to revisit such sanctions?”

The ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, has been condemned internationally. The United Kingdom, United States and European Union have suspended or scaled back military co-operation with Myanmar. But not Australia, says Dr Garnett.

“Our government has officially condemned the ongoing violence and has expressed concern about the situation, committing $30 million in humanitarian aid for those Rohingya who have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are languishing in refugee camps,” she said. 

“But at the same time we have maintained our defence co-operation with Myanmar, recently allocating around $400,000 for military assistance, aimed at building capacity and professionalism.”

The Rohingya have lived primarily in Rakhine State for generations, however they are denied citizenship and have faced waves of persecution over the past 50 years.

The latest pogrom, following militant Rohingya attacks on a number of security forces outposts in northern Rakhine State in August 2017, has resulted in more than 600,000 refugees  crossing the border into Bangladesh, where they are stateless.