Australia-ASEAN Summit: Leaders must take a stand against ethnic cleansing of Rohingya

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Australia must take a strong stand against ongoing crimes against humanity targeting Rohingya in Myanmar as they meet this weekend, Amnesty International said.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto political leader, is expected to attend the first ever ASEAN-Australia Summit, taking place in Sydney on 17-18 March.

“The orchestrated campaign to drive Rohingya out of Myanmar and ensure they cannot return must end. Even if the violence has subsided, ethnic cleansing continues – authorities are starving Rohingya and erecting security force bases on their lands in a bid to force them out,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“The human rights crisis in Rakhine State, and Myanmar as a whole, must be top of the agenda this weekend in Sydney. ASEAN has been shamefully silent on what is happening in one of its member states so far. It is high time for the organisation to take meaningful action, and to call an emergency ASEAN Summit to address the issue.”

Amnesty International has documented how the Myanmar security forces have engaged in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people since August 2017, which amounts to crimes against humanity.

This week, Amnesty International revealed how Myanmar is militarizing northern Rakhine State – until recently home to the majority of Rohingya – by building bases for security forces on torched Rohingya villages.

The summit is taking place just weeks after media reports exposed that Australia is planning to keep supporting the Myanmar military during 2018 through training programs worth almost $400,000.

“Australia’s continued engagement with the Myanmar military is unacceptable and must end immediately. These are the same soldiers who just months ago killed Rohingya, burned villages, committed rapes and drove hundreds of thousands to flee in a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing. It is also the same military that is responsible for war crimes against ethnic minority civilians in northern Myanmar,” said James Gomez.

“Myanmar’s regional neighbours – including Australia and ASEAN – must send a signal that crimes against humanity are unacceptable and will not go unpunished. They should not appear to condone such crimes by providing support and cooperation to the security forces that are responsible.”

Australia: Cruel and inhuman refugee policies

ASEAN leaders must also pressure Australia to end its unlawful and cruel refugee policies. Amnesty International has documented how Australia’s “offshore processing” policies amount to torture or other ill-treatment, as refugees are held in squalid conditions on Manus Island and Nauru in violation of international law.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International highlighted how Australia had abandoned hundreds of refugees to their fate in Papua New Guinea, by moving them to new centres that lack basic services and leave refugees vulnerable to violence.

“Australia’s lack of humanity when it comes to refugees is affecting the whole region. ASEAN leaders must push their Australian counterparts to take their obligations under international law seriously and respect the human rights of refugees,” said James Gomez.

Crackdown on human rights defenders

Amnesty International urges ASEAN governments to prioritise the mounting challenges faced by human rights defenders (HRDs) across the region. Over the past year, several governments have intensified a crackdown on human rights defenders, relying on harassment, draconian laws and even physical violence to stop their peaceful activities.

Over the next 12 months, three countries in the region – Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand – will hold general elections. There are already worrying signs that authorities in these countries are using the upcoming polls as an excuse to restrict space for the rights to freedom of expression and association even further.

“From Hanoi to Manila, those brave enough to speak up for human rights are increasingly doing so at their own peril. It’s deeply worrying that the crackdown on civil society is becoming a trend across the region. Government must do all they can to stop this alarming backslide and instead work together to create a safe space for human rights defenders,” said James Gomez.