Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s first visit to a Western country since a security operation campaign in her country drove over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh came over the weekend in Sydney for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-Australia Summit.
She was on safe, if not unsullied, ground following months of international condemnation from Washington, London and recently in Geneva from United Nations human rights investigators.
Domestic and international human rights groups urged Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to prioritize rights promotion during the Summit, a justified call given the deteriorating rights records of almost all members of the regional grouping, especially Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines.
Yet Australia has long pursued a sotto voce approach to rights promotion in Myanmar, eschewing strong language and favoring quiet engagement to raise issues of concern – unlike the United States and United Kingdom, which regularly release critical statements on armed conflict in the north, the long-standing repression of Rohingya Muslims, and renewed intimidation of the media and civil society.
As Suu Kyi landed in Australia, a group of five lawyers led by Alison Battisson of the law firm Human Rights for All lodged a private application in a Melbourne court to have the State Counsellor arrested for crimes against humanity pursuant to Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Australia’s Attorney General, Christian Porter, quickly nixed the initiative, saying that Suu Kyi “has complete immunity, including from being served with court documents because under customary international law, heads of state, heads of government and ministers of foreign affairs are immune from foreign criminal proceedings and are inviolable – they cannot be arrested, detained, or served with court proceedings.”
There were expected demonstrations against Suu Kyi by Rohingya living in Australia (complete with posters depicting her with an Adolf Hitler moustache), but the government treated her with the ceremony and pomp of a head of state, including an artillery salute, military honor guard, and a visit to the parliament building.
Her attendance at the Lowy Institute policy think-tank in Sydney was cancelled citing ill-health, although she may have wished to avoid questions from the audience. She paid a visit to her former aide and prominent National League for Democracy stalwart U Win Htein instead, retired now in Australia (or banished in disgrace following a scandal over his son’s lavish wedding in the capitol Naypyidaw in January).
The legal gambit may have had laudable popular appeal domestically as Suu Kyi has been castigated for her studied refusal to condemn or even acknowledge the scale of the Rohingya crisis, but it had almost zero chance of success and missed the ultimate command responsibility for the security operation, which rests squarely with the commander in chief of the Myanmar military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
That relationship, with the general and the military institution, is important to Australian interests. Balancing military ties and seeking a more constructive relationship with Suu Kyi in the wake of the Rakhine crisis has been a high wire act for Turnbull’s government, particularly in an environment of intense domestic pressure to blame everything on Suu Kyi.
But it’s a balance Australia has long pursued in Southeast Asia. Indeed, Australia has played a standard middle power role in Myanmar’s democratic transition, emphasizing engagement and commercial interests while moderating its human rights criticism.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, in a speech several days before the Summit, mentioned human rights only once (in relation to human trafficking, a major concern for Canberra’s regional engagement), and emphasized instead the “international rules-based order…. that network of alliances and treaties and conventions and norms, underpinned by international law.”
Bishop went on to say, “Undoubtedly, Australia has been a beneficiary…But it is under strain, it is under challenge. There are states who cherry-pick what parts of the rules-based order they are prepared to adhere to and the parts they are not. They see some short-term interest in challenging that rules-based order…We believe that Asean is uniquely placed to continue to promote the international rules-based order.”
This echoes Australia’s 2017 White Paper on Foreign Policy, which had a small section on human rights promotion and more broadly emphasized trade and engagement. The document should have given pause to any expectation that Turnbull’s government would exert overt pressure on Suu Kyi during the Summit.
In a region where human rights is increasingly cast as Western pressure masquerading as moralizing, the “international rules-based order” is coded terminology for getting along with the neighbors, not championing fundamental freedoms.
Australia was elected after a two-year campaign to serve a three-year term on the 15-body UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC), running from 2018 to 2020. This is despite widespread international criticism over Australia’s policies towards asylum seekers (including the Rohingya) and treatment of its own indigenous people.
Australia was thus a desultory co-sponsor of the March 2017 HRC resolution that mandated a fact-finding mission (FFM) to investigate possible crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated in Myanmar following the violence in Rakhine state in October 2016, and which has since grown into a major investigation into state violence in both Rakhine and war-wracked regions of northern Kachin and Shan states since 2011.
Suu Kyi’s government blocked an investigation even before the hellish violence unleashed by Myanmar’s security forces following attacks from Rohingya militants last August 25, 2017.
A depressing irony is that one of the three international experts leading the FFM is former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Christopher Sidoti, who participated in the Australian government’s human rights training program with Myanmar’s rights-abusing military government between 1999-2003.
The FFM’s head, former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, presenting in Geneva at the HRC in mid-March, just days before Suu Kyi flew to Sydney, condemned the Myanmar government’s culture of official denial over the scale of reported atrocities perpetrated by security forces in Rakhine state.
But Canberra has broader interests in Myanmar to pursue, as the Summit goals and White Paper made clear on closer reading, and are all outlined in the Sydney Declaration signed at the end of the Asean meeting.
Regional business interests and strategic realities such as maritime security, smuggling and violent extremism loom larger (although the Declaration does have a paragraph dedicated to promoting human rights and respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
The Memorandum of Understanding between Asean and Australia on Cooperation to Counter International Terrorism was a key part of the Summit, forging closer ties between regional states on counterterrorism intelligence-sharing and cooperation.
The unclear and not present danger with this approach in regards Myanmar is that collective action could endorse Naypyidaw’s evolving narrative of anti-terrorism as justification for the violent campaign against the Rohingya, a hysterically inflated threat the Myanmar government is using to appeal for international support, and to which Australia could subscribe and relegate human rights concerns as secondary to regional counterterrorism priorities.
There should be no doubt that Islamic violent extremism is a real challenge in Southeast Asia and for Australia. Nearby Indonesia and the Philippines are clear examples, and there are legitimate fears that losses by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East could result in a mass migration of jihadi fighters to the region.
But inflating the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacks in Myanmar to the ranks of international jihadism risks endorsing the mass crimes committed by Myanmar’s security forces, and the cynical opportunism of the civilian and military government exaggerating the terrorist threat.
Australia would be wise to balance its counterterrorism engagement with Myanmar’s security forces with increased support for civil society on countering violent extremism programs to understand from where the tensions really arise.
It is the sphere of limited military engagement where Australia’s moral hazards, and its effective approach to engagement with Myanmar, lie.
Canberra made clear in late 2017 that it would continue its modest engagement of A$398,000 (US$306,000), including funds for workshops on disaster relief, English language training, professional standards, and UN peacekeeping with the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw.
Myanmar troops will also be observers at the Australia-Thailand Pirap Jabiru peacekeeping exercise, as they were for part of the US-Thailand Cobra Gold exercises, the region’s largest joint maneuvers. (Canberra continues to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar due to its record of rights abuses.)
The military engagement strategy has been a long-term goal, as outlined as early as 2012 by the former Australian defense attaché to Thailand and Myanmar who now heads the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center, Professor John Blaxland.
Blaxland has resisted calls from rights campaigners for Australia to disengage with the Tatmadaw, arguing “(c)utting off those ties is like cutting off your nose to spite your face…It’s actually unhelpful because this is the only venue for engagement with the Burmese military on issues relating to human rights.”
Blaxland has a point, and it’s instructive to compare the far more modest military ties the United Kingdom had with the Tatmadaw, which were severed when five Myanmar officers at UK defense establishments were sent home (it was Suu Kyi who wanted more defense ties with Britain back in 2013), with the Tatmadaw stating “We will never again send trainees to Britain.”
But the fact is that lecturing Suu Kyi on military abuses in Rakhine and elsewhere in the country is ineffectual for two reasons: First, she has no control over the military or security forces perpetrating the violence, so all insistence she put a stop to the carnage will necessarily fall on deaf ears.
Second, Suu Kyi has stated repeatedly, publically and privately, that she sees the events of Rakhine state very differently from the rest of the world, and is firmly committed to a process of effectively covering up the military operation that drove 700,000 refugees across the border to Bangladesh and the surreal performance of supposedly preparing for their eventual return.
Canberra calculated that calibrating their engagement with Suu Kyi, including during her trips to Sydney and Canberra, was part of a normalizing, not moralizing, procedure aimed at promoting wider interests.
It was a notably warm reception she was unlikely to receive in Europe or North America as accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide stain her country’s once vaunted democratic transition.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst