Australia’s Rohingya community has rallied in Sydney and Melbourne, urging greater international intervention against military attacks on the ethnic minority in Myanmar, which the head of the United Nations has described as at risk of becoming ethnic cleansing.
The Refugee Council of Australia has called on the federal government to consider a special resettlement program – similar to the successful one it ran for Syrian and Iraqi refugees – for Rohingya forcibly displaced.
In Rakhine state, home to the majority of Myanmar’s one million Rohingya, the government’s military forces have been accused of a scorched earth policy – razing villages and killing civilians – under the cover of a clearance operation seeking out militants.
At least 400 people have been killed, while some reports, as yet unconfirmed, say the death toll could be in the thousands. More than 100,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. There are also reports the military has laid landmines behind fleeing refugees to stop them returning.
Asked if the violence reached the level of ethnic cleansing, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said “we are facing a risk, I hope we don’t get there”.
“I appeal to all, all authorities in Myanmar, civilian authorities and military authorities, to indeed put an end to this violence that, in my opinion, is creating a situation that can destabilise the region,” he said.
Muslim Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. For decades they have faced systemic and extreme persecution at the hands of the military government, which refuses to recognise them as citizens or allow them to vote.
Rohingya are not allowed to travel outside their villages without permission, are denied access to higher education and to healthcare, and are regularly subjected to communal violence by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military.
Outside the offices of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Sydney on Thursday, Rohingya living in Australia pleaded with the federal government to do more to end the current violence.
“Please help us, our Rohingyan people are dying, please help us, they are being killed,” Mohammad Sidek said.
Sidek, a construction worker who has lived in Sydney for five years, said three members of his family were killed on Monday by Myanmar’s military.
Their deaths had caused his remaining family to flee 50km on foot to the Bangladesh border where fishermen had ferried them to safety across the Naf River.
Ahsan Haque from the Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia organisation said his grandparents’ house had been burned to the ground earlier this week and his family members forced to flee into Bangladesh.
“But there are so many people we don’t know about, we don’t know what has happened to them. It is just horrific, what our people are going through is just unimaginable.”
Haque told the Guardian the numbers of people killed in the violence was far higher than what was being reported by the Myanmar military. He said he had received reports from inside the country that there had been several thousands deaths.
“The Myanmar government is not even listening to anybody about this. They are acting like a bully. The whole world is disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction. She’s suffered for the cause of freedom, but now, her silence is an agreement with what the government is doing.”
Haque said the international community should place sanctions on the Myanmar government, and Australia should consider withholding its significant aid program in the country.
Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, said the Australian government should directly pressure the Myanmar government to end the military crackdown, provide emergency assistance to those displaced, and offer resettlement places to Rohingya refugees who cannot return home.
“Australia has resettled just a handful of Rohingya refugees in recent years despite hundreds being either held in immigration detention on Manus, Nauru or in Australia and others enduring prolonged delays to their refugee applications. Australia’s provision of an additional humanitarian intake for Rohingya would illustrate the nation’s commitment to the Asia Pacific region and its intention to provide humanitarian leadership.”
The Amnesty International Australia president, Gabe Kavanagh, said the international community needed to protect the Rohingya minority from the Myanmarese military.
“They are burning homes and communities, they are shooting at civilians and they are restricting aid to communities in need.
“We need to put an end to this.”
Much of the criticism has centred on Myanmar’s de facto leader, first state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, once lauded globally as an icon of peaceful democratic resistance.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of nationalist hero General Aung San and a Nobel peace laureate for her defiance to the military junta which controlled Myanmar for half a century, has said “fake news photographs” have distorted understanding of the situation in Myanmar.
“That kind of fake information … was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists,” she said in a statement.
While Suu Kyi does not directly control the army, she has enormous moral authority in Myanmar, and has been criticised for failing to condemn the atrocities. Protests in Australia have followed similar rallies across the region and the world.
In Jakarta, demonstrators have gathered outside the Myanmarese embassy for three consecutive days demanding an end to the military operation. Pakistan’s government has urged Myanmar to “take necessary measures to protect the rights of Rohingya Muslims” while 20-year-old Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai said the “shameful treatment” of the minority must be condemned.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Myanmar’s actions amounted to “genocide” against the Rohingya and pledged to raise the issue before the United Nations general assembly this month.
Despite a strictly enforced secrecy shrouding Rakhine state, the list of atrocities committed against the minority has been comprehensively documented, by the United Nations, human rights groups and national governments.
Rohingya have been forbidden from having more than two children, they are banned from moving from their villages, and they are outlawed from accessing schooling and healthcare or from working in certain professions.
Regularly their villages are raided by security forces in “clearance operations”, in which soldiers loot and raze homes – often with people inside – and destroy entire settlements. Men, women and children have been summarily executed, and the rape of women and girls is used as a weapon. Testimony from survivors compiled by the UN this year detailed the stabbing of babies and burning of elderly people who couldn’t flee.
with Australian Associated Press