Australia, a country against genocide — most of the time

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Australia has a shameful history of carrying out and sponsoring genocide and the Abbott Government is continuing this tradition, writes Tim Robertson.


And if there’s one mark a nation must surely wish to have expunged from its record, its genocide.

John Howard attempted this and now Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne are repeating the pattern. (For a brilliant examination of why the crimes against Australia's First People in the frontier war constitute an act of genocide I would direct you in direction of Henry Reynolds’ most recent book, The Forgotten War.)

But Australia’s crimes against its Indigenous People are not the only ‘black mark’ against her history — now distorted in textbooks extolling her proud martial record.

Australia, so the myth goes, played an important role as ‘peace keepers’ in restoring order to East Timor from 1999 to 2000.

What’s not mentioned is that Australia courted and sponsored Suharto’s genocidal Indonesian regime. Australia trained their special forces who murdered thousands of East Timorese and was the only western nation to recognise Suharto’s territorial conquest.

This, in turn, allowed Australian government to sign a deal with the dictator that gave her access to oil and gas beneath the disputed Timor Gap, allowing the two nations to split the profits 50/50. (Bear in mind that it’s a crime under international law to exploit the resources of disputed territory for profit.)

Foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Ali Alatas celebrate signing the Timor Gap Treaty (Image via laohamutuk.org)

Now the Abbott Government is playing a role in the genocidal crimes against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who are refused citizenship by the Buddhist government. The Myanmar Government refers to them as ‘Bengalis’ — a term that implies they are from Bangladesh, which they are not.

They are prevented from accessing healthcare service; the children are deprived of an education; they’re forced to live in camps; and, when violence breaks out, their homes are razed, and they’re murdered, raped and tortured by the security forces and local villages.

And all this is done behind a shroud; the Myanmar Government does not allow foreign journalists to visit the worst affected areas and, last month, even expelled Médecins Sans Frontières.

There is little sympathy for the Rohingya within Myanmar.

I was there last month and was staggered by the level of hate and hostility directed towards all Muslims — a message promoted by the Government and shared by most of the Buddhist majority.

However, internationally the plight of the Rohingya is becoming better known and is being raised at high levels of government.

On 18th November 2013, a resolution was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives

‘... urging the Government of Burma to end the persecution of the Rohingya people and respect internationally recognized human rights for all ethnic and religious groups within Burma.’

Yet Australia, a supposed leader in the region, continues to remain silent.

Then again, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers – some of whom are Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar – must surely disqualify her from making moral condemnations of other nations’ human rights record?  

To call this a ‘predicament’ would be to underestimate the quagmire the Abbott Government now finds itself drowning in.

Scott Morrison’s test for whether his refugee policy is working – have the boats stopped arriving? – is also the test for working out how many vulnerable people are being subjected to terrible repression in their own country.

For the Coalition’s policy does nothing to stop repression — it just shuts off one of the few avenues victims have of escaping it.

What’s more, it’s a viable avenue; Australia has the capacity to support the small number of genuine refugees that flee to her shores.

It doesn’t exactly make Australia complicit in crimes being committed by these authoritarian regimes, but it certainly makes her sympathetic. In fact, Australia has the same ‘problem’ as them — unwanted people.

The difference is that the Australian political system puts certain constraints on its Government. Rule of law exists in a way it doesn’t in Myanmar.

But in terms of moral equivalence, the crimes of both countries are inseparable — which should make all Australians more than a little uncomfortable.

Myanmar doesn’t want the Rohingya in their sovereign borders because they don’t consider them Burmese, so they are threatening them with violence and punitive measures. Now, replace the words ‘Myanmar’ with ‘Australia’ and ‘Burmese’ with ‘Australian’ in the previous sentence and you have a perfect encapsulation of the Coalitions refugee policy.

The torture we subject refugees to by condemning them to indefinite detention is becoming more and more obvious — but what’s impossible to measure is how many people are left to suffer in faraway countries because they’ve now got nowhere to escape.

Tim Robertson is an Australian freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow him on Twitter @timrobertson12.

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