Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Cynicism or Sadism? Australia’s relationship with the Rohingya

Credit: DFAT

My previous post centered on the discourse surrounding asylum seekers in Australia. This post occupies itself with that which hides behind this discourse that induces a manipulated sense of belonging and security: the sinister maneuverings of power that, in our eagerness to maintain it, escape our global suburban attention. The overriding question is: as Australia has no interest in treating asylum seekers with dignity, ((I acknowledge that Australia encompasses much more than the bigoted attitudes of the current government, but for the purpose of this post, Australia will serve as a synonym for it. The same should be said for Burma.)) what is Australia doing to stem the causes of asylum seeking at its roots? As it turns out, Australian foreign policy is, at least in one case – in its relationship with the Rohingya of Burma, itself a contributing cause.

Before we proceed, my assumption that Australia has no interest in treating asylum seekers with dignity deserves substantiation. While a listing of the policies now instituted against asylum seekers may be found with the help of Google, the question of motivations is more difficult to ascertain. However, I believe Waleed Aly got it right when he argued that horror is the purpose of those policies, as they are meant to serve as a deterrent to future asylum seekers. This is also argued by Graeme McGregor of Amnesty International and is given further credence by the testimony of a former employee on Manus. To sum up, according to this interpretation, harm that comes to asylum seekers benefits the policy of deterrence. We may then argue how this harm might be conceptualized and how much of it is inflicted on purpose, but the facts suggest a large amount of cynicism went into their design.

We proceed. Meet the Rohingya. They are a Muslim ethnic minority that mostly inhabits areas in Western Burma. For decades they have been persecuted by successive Burmese governments. ((See Human Rights Watch 2013, All you can do is Pray, Human Rights Watch: Washington, pp. 137-144 for an overview of this abuse.)) Currently many are locked up in de-facto prison camps, with the Burmese government pursuing policies that amount to ethnic cleansing and puts them at risk of genocide. Their neighboring country, Bangladesh, has historically taken in a lot of Rohingya refugees. However, seemingly serving as an inspiration to Australia, Bangladesh has long been pursuing the policy of deterrence, previously setting an impressive benchmark for maltreatment by withholding food from Rohingya asylum seekers in order to deter. ((Human Rights Watch 2013, p. 139.)) Little has it helped. Additionally, after sectarian violence flared up in June 2012, they decided to close their borders completely and send boats back onto the notoriously shifty northern parts of the Bay of Bengal upon arrival. ((Human Rights Watch 2012, The Government Could Have Stopped This, Human Rights Watch: Washington DC, p. 5.)) The number of deaths accompanied by this practice is unknown.

A decent number of Rohingya – refugees in every sense of the word, and who are officially stateless, come to Australia by boat. Upon arrival, they are now once again subjected to the cynical policies of deterrence. Yet, this is not the sum of Australia’s relationship with the Rohingya: cynicism as carelessness is not the end of the story.

Burma is currently undergoing a sort of managed liberal, democratic transition. It used to be one of the most ‘self-secluded’ countries in the world, but it is now open for business. ((China has been doing business in the country for a while but, as some might say – rather crudely, the market is still largely underdeveloped – making it in need of ‘development’.)) However, while the ‘new’ ((As the transition is ’managed’, there are a lot of the same people still in charge.)) government has liberalised economically, its policies on ethnic minorities have not undergone a transition to the same degree. In fact, as I have argued, the Burmese government is still conducting ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

The point of contribution, on behalf of Australia, to the conditions of the Rohingya, – the continuation of the story – could be argued to be located at the locus of global capitalism and nationalism – a dynamic I alluded to in my previous post. Yet, that link would only be tenuous and indirect. However, as Human Rights Watch has asserted complicity on the part of the government in the contribution to the horrific conditions of the Rohingya, the mere fact that Australia supports the Burmese government also places responsibility on it.This support manifests itself in many ways. Notably, however, last year Australia announced that it would cut funding for a free health care program for ethnic minorities living on the Thai-Burma border fleeing persecution inside Burma, in order to move that funding inside Burma’s borders for programs encouraging the refugees to return. What the money will actually fund next remains to be seen, but even if the money still goes towards health care, the fact that it is now run under the auspices of the reformist government lends credibility to it and functions so as to serve its interests.

Do not get me wrong. Much may be said for reaching out to an authoritarian regime wishing to ‘change’ its ways. But, the continued breaches to human dignity that occur even after the transition has commenced must also be accounted for. At the moment it seems as if Australia is happy for the Rohingya in Burma to be collateral damage in the pursuit of liberalisation, yet, if complicity may be said to exist in the occurrence of ethnic cleansing, which I argue it does on the basis of the support offered to the Burmese government, responsibility exists as well.

Yet, this responsibility is not being accounted for, making the absurdity of Australia’s asylum seeker policies even greater. Acting with complicity to the persecution of the Rohingya appears to not be enough for Australia: Rather, the few Rohingya who manage to escape the conditions and make their way to Australia may now also be locked up indefinitely and be made examples of. Perhaps, this is not just cynical, but sadistic.


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