Australia should not 'cosy up' to Myanmar's army, says Human Rights Watch

By agency reporter
February 23, 2020

Australia should avoid dealings with Myanmar that play down the egregious rights abuses of its military, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne. Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to immediately end military ties with Myanmar.

A meeting on 29 January 2020 between Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar, Andrea Faulkner, and Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, overlooked the general’s responsibility for grave crimes committed against ethnic Rohingya Muslims since 2017. Min Aung Hlaing used the meeting to bolster his public image and to present a picture of normal relations between the Australian and Myanmar militaries that undercuts efforts by other governments to isolate a commander implicated in serious abuses. 

“Australia should be sanctioning Min Aung Hlaing, not taking photos and exchanging gifts with someone who should be investigated for mass atrocities”, said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “In its meetings with Myanmar officials, Australia should never give the impression that it’s business-as-usual with no repercussions for Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.”

In 2018, the United Nations-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar recommended that the country’s top military generals should be investigated for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The UN report named six high-ranking military commanders, including Min Aung Hlaing.

Australia has already placed sanctions on five officials named in the UN fact-finding report, but not Min Aung Hlaing. The United States government has imposed sanctions on him. Given the voluminous evidence available of grave abuses by forces under his command, Australia and other countries should do the same.

Australia’s training for Myanmar’s military is limited to cooperation in non-combat areas, providing training in relation to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, English-language training, and peacekeeping by Myanmar’s security forces.

Because of the Myanmar military’s mass atrocities against the Rohingya, it would be inappropriate for any Myanmar soldiers to be deployed on UN peacekeeping missions. In 2019, the UN pulled the last Myanmar soldiers from the UN mission in South Sudan.

Instead of strengthening ties with Myanmar’s military, the Australian government should focus on pressuring the government and military to immediately carry out the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice in January, hold those responsible for abuses to account, and create the conditions for the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

“If the UN isn’t accepting Myanmar soldiers as peacekeepers due to human rights concerns, Australia shouldn’t be training them to be peacekeepers”, Pearson said. “Instead of cosying up to Myanmar’s leaders, Australia should be suspending assistance to Myanmar’s military until there is genuine progress on rights protection and accountability.”

* Read the letter to Marise Payne here

* Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/

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