February 22, 2020

Australian ambassador meets with Myanmar military chief accused of Rohingya genocide

The Guardian

Ben Doherty
Thu 20 Feb 2020

Exclusive: Australia accused of giving legitimacy and credibility to a military accused of mass atrocities

 Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar, Andrea Faulkner, met Min Aung Hlaing on 29 January at the Bayintnaung Villa in the capital, Naypyidaw. Photograph: Supplied 
The commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s defence forces – recommended by the UN for investigation and prosecution for war crimes and genocide – has met with Australia’s ambassador and says he wants to train more of his officers in Australia.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is the supreme commander of Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, which has been accused of genocide in its systematic persecution of the ethnic and religious minority Rohingya.

In “clearance operations” begun in August 2017, thousands of Rohingya were murdered, women and girls were gang raped, while pregnant women were targeted for torture and murder. Other people were burned alive in their homes, and more than 700,000 Rohingya fled over the border to Bangladesh.

Australia’s ambassador, Andrea Faulkner, met Min Aung Hlaing on 29 January at the Bayintnaung Villa in the capital, Naypyidaw. The pair exchanged gifts and posed for photos.

Human Rights Watch has said Australia’s decision to take the meeting risked giving legitimacy and credibility to a military accused of mass atrocities.

Min Aung Hlaing, widely regarded as the most powerful person in Myanmar, said he and Faulkner discussed “improved relations between Myanmar and Australia which have been on friendly terms since ancient times” as well as “defence cooperation between the two armed forces of the two countries, sending of more trainees [and] the Indo-Pacific region’s geographical politics”.

They also discussed Myanmar’s inquiry into the “clearance operation” campaign against the Rohingya, the provisional measures ordered by the international court of justice and Australian assistance in anti-narcotic operations.

Australia is one of the few western countries that maintains a policy of “engagement” with the Myanmar military, but only in non-combat areas, providing $400,000 of training annually in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, English language classes and peacekeeping.

Other militaries, such as that of the European Union, Britain, the US, France and Canada, cut all assistance to the Tatmadaw following the 2017 violence against the Rohingya.

It is not the first time Faulkner and previous Australian ambassadors have met Min Aung Hlaing.

The UN has identified Min Aung Hlaing as someone who should face investigation and prosecution for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

He has also been individually sanctioned by the US under its Global Magnitsky Act. He cannot travel to America or do business with any US citizen. Any assets he might have in the US are frozen.

The US treasury department said military forces under his direct command had committed “serious human rights abuses”.

“During this time, members of ethnic minority groups were killed or injured by gunshot, often while fleeing, or by soldiers using large-bladed weapons; others were burned to death in their own houses.”

Min Aung Hlaing has described the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants, terrorists and extremists” and said the “clearance operations” to exterminate or forcibly drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar was “an unfinished job” the government was trying to solve.

Australia has imposed autonomous sanctions on five senior members of the Myanmar military, including some direct subordinates of Min Aung Hlaing, but not on the supreme commander himself.

Elaine Pearson, Australia Director with Human Rights Watch, said Australia should avoid dealings with Myanmar that play down its military’s egregious rights abuses.

“Australia should be sanctioning Min Aung Hlaing, not taking photos and exchanging gifts with someone who should be investigated for mass atrocities.

“In its meetings with Myanmar officials, Australia should never give the impression that it’s business-as-usual with no repercussions for Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.”

Pearson has written to Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, arguing Min Aung Hlaing had used

the meeting to bolster his international image and legitimise the military he leads.

“Min Aung Hlaing quickly instrumentalised this meeting to bolster his public image, publishing a photograph of himself with Ambassador Faulkner on this website.”

The UN withdrew the last Myanmar soldiers serving as peacekeepers in a United Nations mission last year.

“If the UN isn’t accepting Myanmar soldiers as peacekeepers due to human rights concerns, Australia shouldn’t be training them to be peacekeepers,” Pearson told the Guardian.

“Instead of cosying up to Myanmar’s leaders, Australia should be suspending assistance to Myanmar’s military until there is genuine progress on rights protection and accountability.”

The foreign affairs department did not respond to questions about the ambassador’s meeting with Min Aung Hlaing and Australia’s relationship with the Myanmar military.

The Australian parliament is currently examining the merits of passing its own global Magnitsky Act, to unilaterally impose targeted sanctions on individuals accused of gross human rights abuses.

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