Bishop urged to take up cause of Rohingyas

Rights groups are calling on Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to take a tough stance in talks with Myanmar’s government amid a deteriorating humanitarian crisis affecting thousands of ethnic Muslim Rohingyas in refugee camps in Rakhine state.


Ms Bishop is in Myanmar for a three-day visit and will hold talks with President Thein Sein and government representatives as well as Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National league for Democracy.

In official statements, Ms Bishop recognised there were “significant security concerns and humanitarian needs” in Rakhine state, and she would be calling for a peaceful resolution to the ethnic and sectarian unrest.

Violence since 2012 has led to the displacement of more than 120,000 people, both Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhists, and the deaths of up to 200 people in sectarian and ethnic bloodshed.

There are about 1.3 million Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar, many stateless and mostly living in Rakhine state where they face severe restrictions.

The central government refuses to recognise their statehood, referring to them as Bengalis from Bangladesh.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, says Ms Bishop needs to take a strong stance with Myanmar’s leaders to ensure humanitarian access to the Rohingyas in the camps.

“(Bishop) has to be tough privately and publicly. Whispers in the president’s office are not enough when it comes to something that’s clearly bad and abusive as this situation faced by the Rohingya in Rakhine state,” Mr Robertson told AAP.

“This has got to be an issue that is trumpeted by the foreign minister as something that must be dealt with as part of the larger reform process,” he said.

Australia has backed Myanmar’s political reforms since 2011 with an easing in economic and trade sanctions, and has also been a key contributor of foreign aid to the crisis in Rakhine state, providing $9 million in 2012-13.

But aid has been severely restricted to the Muslim communities still in open camps more than two years after the initial ethnic violence.

United Nations assistant secretary-general Kyung-wha Kang recently referred to the “appalling conditions” in the camps, where thousands live in open tented communities.

Ms Kang said the people had “wholly inadequate access to basic services, including health, education, water and sanitation”. Children were facing severe malnutrition as well.

Buddhist extremists recently accused international aid groups of bias towards the Muslim refugees and razed warehouses belonging to aid organisations.

In March, medical group Doctors without Borders was expelled from Rakhine state after providing health care for hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas.

Chris Lewa, founder of non-government aid group The Arakan Project, says the priority needs to be for people to have proper access to welfare services.

“For me, it is to call on Australia to make sure that there is proper access and delivery of services, especially health services, because I understand that there is (only) 50 per cent of the (aid) staff (working) and there are issues of security,” Ms Lewa told AAP.

The UN’s refugee agency says as many as 86,000 Rohingyas have left on boats since June 2012, largely heading to Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Indonesia. At least 1345 are known to have perished at sea.

Debbie Stothard, spokesperson for rights group Alternative ASEAN Network, called on Australia to press Myanmar on the issue of the Rohingya in the face of the rising numbers fleeing by boat.

“If Australia doesn’t want to have refugees, then they better start being serious about the root causes,” Ms Stothard told AAP.

“Trying to lock them up or push them back to sea is not going to be a solution,” she said.

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