In January, Federal Member for Griffith, Terri Butler was part of a delegation organised by Save the Children and funded by the Gates Foundation, to Myanmar. The aim, Ms Butler, told The Westender, was to raise parliamentarians’ understanding, and appreciation, of the practical applications of overseas development assistance.

Ms Butler says that it is important for Australian parliamentarians to participate in visits of this kind.

“As the nation’s parliament, we have a role in understanding Australia’s place in the world and the contribution we can make to overseas development, for both altruistic and self-interested reasons. The former, because it is in people’s interests to move out of poverty, conflict and oppression; the latter, because it is in Australia’s self-interest to have a more peaceful world and trading partners with stronger economies. These things are relevant to a federal MP’s role as a member of the nation’s parliament and also to our role as local representatives and champions, both because I have constituents with a strong interest in overseas development, and because my constituents are also taxpayers, and overseas aid is funded by domestic tax revenue.”

Rohingya Muslim

The Rohingya Muslims are a minority group in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. They do not share citizen rights, and most live in internally displaced person (IDP) camps. Amnesty International considers them to be one of the most persecuted minorities on Earth.[1] Their plight came to world attention in 2015 when many thousands fled Myanmar by boat.

School building, ethnic Rakhine remote village (non-Muslim, not part of the IDP camp)

There was hope that, with the transition to democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi’s[2] rise to power, things would change for the Rohingya Muslims. However, in December 2016, 22 Nobel Laureates signed an open letter criticising Ms Suu Kyi’s lack of action on the Rohingya Muslims,[3] and just this month, Ms Suu Kyi denied claims of ethnic cleansing.[4]

Ms Butler agrees that there is a danger when parliamentarians visit a country such as Myanmar on sponsored travel, that they may be presented with information that is chosen by the sponsor and therefore reflects that sponsor’s interests.

“That is a downside of sponsored travel. On this delegation, we were sponsored by the Gates Foundation and Save the Children. However, we also met with the Australian Ambassador and DFAT staff, national and state level Ministers, the UN, local NGOs, and other international NGOs, as well as locals, when we visited. It is useful to ensure that the itinerary exposes you to a diversity of views and interests. Having non-government involvement is useful, though it can lead to uncertainty: it was not until the week before we landed that we had confirmation that we would be allowed to travel up to Rakhine state and visit an IDP camp.”

Seeing government officials was important, Ms Butler said, and the delegation was able to raise its concerns directly with them.

“Our visit was also reported in local media, including the fact that we had raised concerns about the treatment of Muslims in Rakhine state.”

Ms Butler said that seeing the conditions first hand, and speaking with people directly, is very useful.

“I was able to communicate directly with some teenage girls in the IDP camp using Google’s translation tools. We also had a reasonable amount of interpreter assisted communication with Rakhine (non-Muslim) locals in one of the remote villages. We also heard from local NGOs about difficulties in Shan state and difficulties being faced by the Karen people in relation to plans for a local river. “

Complex situation

In December 2016 there was a rise of armed resistance by Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, border posts were attacked, and police killed.

Ms Butler said that talking to Burma ethnic group people also sharpened the delegation’s understanding of how much anti-Muslim sentiment there is in developed areas of Myanmar.

“Meeting with NGOs allowed us to understand the depth of the reaction against the insurgency that had seen police officers killed in late 2016”, she said.

“If that happened in Australia – if a group of people organised a coordinated attack on police stations and slit the throats of several police officers, killing them, then there would be a strong backlash, no matter how poor the group’s conditions had been and what had occurred before the attacks. So it is in Myanmar. That insurgency turned public sentiment even further, and that seems to have led to very little domestic concern about the military forces’ subsequent campaign against the muslim population in the far north of Rakhine state. The special rapporteur, who was in Rakhine only a few days before we were, has since documented that there are killings, houses being burned down, and other attacks being perpetrated against local muslims in the far north. Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of people in the IDP camps around the capital, who have been there since 2012. It is a fraught situation, and there needs to be continued international attention to move the Myanmar military towards ending violence against the muslim population and towards ending the current situation where they have been forced to live in camps, without freedom of movement, for years now. And while those camps exist, there is an urgent need to extend the education available to the children who are growing up in those conditions.”

The situation in Myanmar is complicated and Ms Butler counsels against knee-jerk criticism of the current regime. She told The Westender that she shares the recently reported concerns of long-time Burmese campaigner, Janelle Saffin[5] about criticisms of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“I agree that people should be reluctant to hold the State Counsellor responsible for the actions of the military. The democratically elected government has been in office for only a year. Many of the MPs have never held public office before.

School building, IDP camp Sittwe, Rakhine State

Ms Butler said Ms Suu Kyi is leading an ongoing national peace process and is also focussing on education nationally.

“The country is transitioning from a full military dictatorship. The military still has 25% of the seats in parliament. That means the constitution cannot be changed without their agreement. They have the constitutional right to directly appoint three of the most important ministries: defence, border security and home affairs. So they control the coercive powers of the state. There are more than 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, with different languages, cultures and conflicts. Just creating educational resources that everyone can use is a massive challenge, let alone extending schooling beyond grade five for children across the country. As I mentioned there is significant conflict in Shan state on the border of China and also conflict involving the Karen people. There are dozens of ethnic armed organisations, of which only some have signed up to a peace document, which came out of a process that the State Counsellor has been leading.”

Ms Suu Kyi’s status and international recognition means that expectations of her have been “sky high”, Ms Butler said.

“Blaming her [Ms Suu Kyi] for not having overcome all of Myanmar’s long-term entrenched conflict, and for not having gained the power to exercise control over the military when the constitution is set up to ensure it remains very powerful, in her first year of office, seems unreasonable, Ms Butler added.

Any room for optimism?

Australia, Ms Butler said, works through the formal bodies, like the Human Rights Council, and through its embassies, and informally through working with NGOs to campaign for change. While she is not optimistic about immediate change, she says she hopes that the work of the delegation made some modest contribution to decisions of the Australian government.

“The conflict is entrenched and long term. IDP camps tend to run for years. Kids are growing up with little education. Aid money helps with education and with clean water, but there are a lot of other complexities too. It can seem as though most of the citizens of Myanmar see the people in IDP camps as being in Myanmar illegitimately and want them to “go back where they came from”, even if they have been living there for generations. Having said that, if the international community continues to impress upon the Myanmar military and civilian governments the importance of change, that may assist.”

On her return to Australia Ms Butler moved a bipartisan motion[i] in the House of Representatives, seconded by Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, about Myanmar, and, specifically, the Muslim population in Rakhine state.

“All of the House of Representatives members of the delegation spoke to that motion”, Ms Butler said.

“We also met with both the Foreign Minister and Shadow Foreign Minister, collectively. After our delegation, the government subsequently made a foreign aid announcement in relation to Myanmar. After our motion was debated, the government decided to co-sponsor a motion at the Human Rights Council calling for the implementation of the special rapporteur’s recommendations for further scrutiny in Rakhine state.”

Australia’s foreign aid commitment to Myanmar

Ms Butler says that the total Australian Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Myanmar this financial year was budgeted as $59.8 million.

This, she told The Westender, was significantly less than the previous financial year amount of $75.4 million. On 15 March 2017, the government announced an additional $71.5 million over four years (2017-2020), “to assist Myanmar address barriers that prevent children from getting the education opportunities they deserve.”

Labor has been critical of the Coalition cuts to overseas aid arguing that a strong aid program helps keep Australia safe by, “…working to tackle serious diseases and violence in our region, and in our world”. [6]

Commenting on calls by Coalition members such as George Christensen to halt foreign aid programs and redirect money to Queensland flood victims, Ms Butler says, “it is logically inconsistent to be concerned about radicalisation in the world and in the region, and the threats that radicalisation poses to national security, and to oppose the payment of overseas development assistance. If we want to live in a safer and more secure world with less radicalisation, then one of the best ways we can do that is to extend a helping hand around the world and support economic development and the resolution of conflicts.”

NOTES

[1] Who are the Rohingya refugees? Amnesty International – Accessed April 14, 2017 https://www.amnesty.org.au/who-are-the-rohingya-refugees/

[2] In April 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was established as the First State Councillor of Myanmar. While her party holds power, the Myanmar constitution forbids her from becoming president because she has children who are foreign nationals. The president is Htin Kyaw, but Suu Kyi is considered to be Myanmar’s de facto leader.

[3] Nobel peace prize winners scold Aung San Suu Kyi, SMH, accessed April 14, 2017 http://www.smh.com.au/world/nobel-peace-prize-winners-scold-aung-san-suu-kyi-over-crimes-against-rohingyas-20161230-gtjzco.html

[4] Aung San Suu Kyi denies ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar, SMH, access April 14, 2017 http://www.smh.com.au/world/aung-san-suu-kyi-denies-ethnic-cleansing-of-rohingya-in-myanmar-20170406-gvew28.html

[5] Aung San Suu Kyi ‘hung out to dry’, say East Timorese, Australian leaders, SMH, accessed April 14 2017

http://www.smh.com.au/world/aung-san-suu-kyi-hung-out-to-dry-say-east-timorese-australian-politicians-20170414-gvkwxf.html

[6] ALP policy on Foreign Aid, access April 14, 2017 http://www.100positivepolicies.org.au/protecting_overseas_aid_projects

[i] The motion was:

That this House:

(1) commends the work funded by the Australian Development Assistance program through bilateral, multilateral and non-government organisation partners like Save the Children, to strengthen governance, democracy and vulnerable communities across Myanmar;

(2) is cognisant of and concurs with international concern about the marginalisation and displacement of Muslims in Rakhine State in Myanmar, particularly since 2012;

(3) expresses its grave concern about the coordinated attacks on Border Guard Police posts of 9 October 2016, at three locations in northern Rakhine State, and:

(a) offers its condolences to the families of the nine police officers who were killed and to the Myanmar people;

(b) abhors the violence and the theft of guns and ammunition; and

(c) asserts that those responsible for such a heinous crime should be brought to justice;

(4) observes also that in the interests of democracy, peace, security and human rights, the rule of law should be upheld in Rakhine State, and calls on security forces to conduct security operations in a manner that does not marginalise or displace people in Rakhine State;

(5) notes:

(a) the very real risk that excessive use of force may have on the effect of radicalising and further marginalising the Muslim community in Rakhine State, increasing conflict and hampering efforts to achieve peaceful outcomes; and

(b) with deep concern, the report on 3 February 2017 from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on reported human rights violations occurring in northern Rakhine State;

(6) acknowledges:

(a) the national-level bodies established to investigate reports of human rights abuses in northern Rakhine State and urges them to undertake credible, thorough and impartial investigations;

(b) the work of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, and commends the Myanmar State Counsellor (MSC) for meeting with the Special Rapporteur; and

(c) also the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and commends the MSC for having established that Commission; and

(7) calls upon the civilian government, military, and parliament of Myanmar to redouble their efforts to end the marginalisation and displacement of Muslims in Rakhine State, and to seek to create conditions in which all residents of Rakhine State can live peacefully, can have access to education and healthcare, and can have freedom of movement.