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Rohingya refugees arrive at night from Myanmar to Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 27, 2017. © 2017 Damir Sagolj/Reuters

The Australian government has resisted calls to sanction Burma’s military for its ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims. 

This makes some Australians wonder: At what point do soldiers who kill and rape hundreds of men, women and children cross a red line? 

Tula Toli had been a sleepy riverside village in western Burma’s Rakhine State, but now Tula Toli is synonymous with a methodical and brutal massacre.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Rohingya from the village who described in chilling detail how families sprinted to the beach as soldiers swarmed in, firing their weapons. 

Soldiers rounded up the men, shot and stabbed them to death, and burned the bodies in a massive bonfire on the beach. Soldiers then turned to the women and girls and beat, raped, slashed, burned and killed them. 

Rajuma Begum, 20, told us:

Between seven and 10 soldiers took us to a room in a house. I could hear women and girls screaming from the other rooms. They first took my child and threw him down on the ground. He was still alive then, and I had to watch as they slaughtered him.

Then the soldiers raped all three of us women. I was on my back [being raped] for an hour.

Military’s Cruel Efficiency Suggests Planning

Tula Toli is but one of 354 villages burned since late August in the Burmese military’s “clearance operations” across northern Rakhine State.

The campaign against the Rohingya followed attacks on police posts in northern Rakhine state by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants on August 25. 

According to the government, the militants killed 11 security force personnel.

Following the ARSA attacks, soldiers carried out their campaign against the Rohingya with a cruel efficiency that could only come with advance planning.

Many governments have condemned Burma for these atrocities at the United Nations Human Rights Council and General Assembly. 

The Australian government has supported these efforts, albeit belatedly. Australia’s mission in Geneva expressed concern about reports of ethnic cleansing and supported the UN Special Session resolution condemning the “very likely” commission of crimes against humanity.

In any case, it’s clear that statements of condemnation are insufficient. 

Satellites Show Burning Rohingya Villages

More than 655,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. Medecins Sans Frontieres estimates that at least 6,700 Rohingya died violent deaths, most from gunshots, in just the month following August 25. 

An updated map of destruction of Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State during October and November 2017. © 2017 Human Rights Watch

And satellite imagery tells us that villages in Rakhine State continue to burn — another 40 in October and November alone.

Burma’s government has shown no interest in reckoning with these atrocities. 

A Burmese military investigation in November whitewashed the brutal campaign. The government has refused to grant access to the Australia-supported, UN fact-finding mission, stopped cooperating with the UN’s special rapporteur charged with reporting on the overall human rights situation, and blocked independent media from meaningful access to the affected areas, while arresting journalists reporting on abuses. Burma is, quite simply, hiding from the truth. 

The Burmese army’s investigation asserted that security forces acted in accordance with the law and had committed no abuses. It concluded that there were “no deaths of innocent people,” and that the military acted in accordance with “orders and directives of superior bodies, especially the rules of engagement in connection with the rights of self-defense and in discharging duties during the armed conflicts and anti-terrorist operations.”

It seems that all foreign military training, including by Australia, has done for Burma’s soldiers is taught them to parrot the language of international human rights and humanitarian law to justify their operations while doing nothing to respect these rights in practice.

ADF Shouldn’t Taint Itself

In the face of these atrocities and denials, unequivocal action from concerned countries is needed. That means targeted sanctions against those responsible, including senior military commanders in charge of the ethnic cleansing campaign, to prevent them from traveling to countries like Australia, and freezing any assets that they may have here. Australia should also suspend all military cooperation with Burma. The US and UK have already moved in this direction.

A Rohingya man fixes his roof

A Decade of Detention for Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

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Australia’s defense engagement with Burma is not enormous. According to Senate estimates, $398,000 was allocated to defense cooperation with Burma this fiscal year covering humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping and English-language training.

But the thought of Burma sending its troops on peacekeeping missions is sickening. Australian defense officials have defended ongoing engagement as “necessary to allow human rights concerns to be communicated directly.” But it seems all that engagement is doing is giving cover to human rights abuses.

Australia’s Defence Force should not be so willing to taint itself by association with a brutal and bloody force. If the departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs won’t act, then politicians should pressure them to do so.

The survivors of these abuses, like Rajuma, deserve justice and no justice will be served while impunity for the military’s atrocities is the norm. 

The Australian government needs to send a strong message that its response to ethnic cleansing is not “business as usual.”

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