(Image: Myanmar soldiers patrol the Bangladesh border, over which 688,000 Rohingya refugees have fled since August. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images )
The Australian defense department plans to spend almost $400,000 on English lessons, event attendances and training courses for members of the Myanmar military in 2017-18, documents released under freedom of information laws show.
Myanmar’s armed forces, also known as the Tatmadaw, has faced international condemnation and accusations of ethnic cleansing in recent months for perpetrating a fresh wave of attacks against the country’s minority Rohingya population. About 688,000 Rohingya refugees have fled over the border to Bangladesh since August 2017. Yanghee Lee, a UN human rights investigator, has said the situation bears “the hallmarks of a genocide”.
In 2017-18 the defense department will spend $398,000 (a $126,000 increase on last year’s spending) on English lessons and on funding Myanmar’s participation in the Pirap Jabiru multilateral military exercises in the region that Australia cohosts with Thailand.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, is due to visit Sydney this month for the Asean-Australia special summit. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Thursday the Myanmar government’s treatment of the Rohingya people is expected to be discussed.
Australian allies including the US, UK, Canada, France and the EU have cut ties with Myanmar’s military over the violence. The US and Canada have imposed targeted sanctions against Myanmar military leaders. In recent months the Myanmar military has also courted controversy through purchases of fighter jets from Russia and ballistic missiles from North Korea.
A briefing note produced by the defense department says: “Defence has a modest program of engagement with Myanmar in non-combat areas, with a focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping training and English language training. This engagement is designed to expose the Tatmadaw to the ways of a modern, professional defense force and highlight the importance of adhering to the international humanitarian law.”
The briefing note, anticipating a challenge on why the UK and the US have acted differently, says: “Each country needs to make its own decision on engagement with the Tatmadaw.”
While an arms embargo, introduced in 1991, remains in place, Australia has so far diverged from its allies and resisted calls from groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to suspend military cooperation with Myanmar. Australia held its first bilateral defense cooperation talks with Myanmar in 2017 and plans to hold further talks this year.
“Australia’s bilateral defense engagement with Myanmar is limited to humanitarian and non-combat areas such as disaster relief, peacekeeping, aviation safety and English-language training,” a defense department spokesperson said.
“Maintaining this engagement has enabled senior Australian military officials to directly raise concerns on Rakhine with their Myanmar counterparts.”
Last year the defense department offered Tatmadaw officers English lessons and study places in Australia for courses on aviation safety, maritime security, operational law, joint warfare and peacekeeping. One Tatmadaw officer received a scholarship from the defense department to study for a master of peace and conflict at the University of Sydney.
In June 2017 Australia gave Myanmar advice on how to carry out an air accident investigation following the deaths of 122 people when a Y-8 military plane crashed.
The spokesperson gave the example of Lieut Gen Angus Campbell’s meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw army, at the Pacific armies chiefs conference in Seoul in September 2017.
Diana Sayed, Amnesty International’s crisis campaigns coordinator, said the Australian government’s strategy of continued engagement and careful diplomacy cannot be justified given the extent and extremity of the crisis.
“This business as usual approach is unacceptable, and is only going to further damage Australia’s international reputation, especially as Australia takes up its seat on the UN human rights council,” Sayed says. “The decisions of the US, the UK, and the EU to cut military ties, and the recent sanctions imposed by Canada all show that Australia is out of touch with the rest of the world when it comes to this crisis.”
It is not known if members of the Tatmadaw who are directly implicated in the violence against the Rohingya could benefit from Australian-funded training. The defense spokesperson said subject to course requirements and visa processes, “the Tatmadaw nominates personnel to fill Australia-based training positions”.
The department did not provide a response to questions about what steps the department is taking to identify individuals implicated in perpetrating the violence.
Talking points written for the Australian defense minister Marise Payne’s meeting with her Myanmar counterpart Lieut Gen Sein Win in October 2017 advise her to acknowledge the Myanmar government’s narrative that “the current violence was sparked by attacks on government forces”.
The minister is advised that Australia “strongly condemns” the attacks on security outposts by Rohingya militants, in which 11 police officers were killed, but stops short of condemning the government’s own violence against the Rohingya people in which an estimated 6,700 civilians were killed in only the first month.
Instead, the talking points express Australia’s “deep concern” over the displacement of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, saying that “these reports divert attention away from the legitimate security threat posed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army [and] harm the Myanmar military’s international reputation”.