Turnbull must 'step up' to Aung San Suu Kyi at ASEAN summit

Malcolm Turnbull and Aung San Suu Kyi during the 2016 ASEAN Summit in Laos. Source: AAP

A Save the Children director says Malcolm Turnbull must confront Myanmar’s de facto leader about alleged human rights abuses in Sydney this weekend.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is being urged to confront Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney this weekend.

Save the Children Australia’s Director of Policy and International Programs Mat Tinkler told SBS News the Australian government must address the Rohingya refugee crisis with Ms Suu Kyi head-on.

“Here is a great opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop to step up … and say these are the standards that we expect countries to adhere to in this region,” Mr Tinkler said. 

“We need countries like Australia and other countries in the region to start thinking about a regional response to this crisis.”

Rohingya Muslims carry their young children and belongings after crossing the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh.
Rohingya Muslims carry their young children and belongings after crossing the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh.

Mr Tinker’s comments follow calls by Human Rights Watch for Mr Turnbull to use the summit to discuss the Rohingya refugee crisis, as well as the democratic crackdown in Cambodia and restrictions on free speech in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.

Human Rights Watch director Elaine Pearson said Australia’s failure to publically raise human rights violations at the summit would be a coup to ASEAN’s “most abusive leaders”.

“Shutting one’s eyes and hoping that closer trade and security ties will somehow magically transform abusive governments into rights-respecting ones doesn’t work,” Ms Pearson said. 

Myanmar may 'retreat'

This weekend’s summit marks one of Ms Suu Kyi’s few trips outside of her country since the crisis began last August. A Myanmar military campaign in northern Rakhine State has forced more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee their country. They are now living in makeshift refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, in neighbouring Bangladesh.

The United Nations has called the military campaign a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” amid reports many Rohingya Muslims have been raped, killed, and had their homes burned to the ground. Ms Suu Kyi's leadership has been under intense scrutiny after she failed to speak out strongly against the reports.

Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, stretch their arms out to collect food items distributed by aid agencies.
Rohingya Muslims reach for food distributed by aid agencies.

Myanmar claims its offensive is to combat an armed ethnic group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, declared a terrorist organisation by the government. And in her first speech on the crisis in September, Ms Suu Kyi insisted her country was not “afraid of international scrutiny” over the matter.

But Melissa Crouch, a Senior Lecturer and expert in Myanmar law at the University of New South Wales, says ASEAN leaders must not back the country into a corner.

“The strong sentiment in Myanmar at the moment is an emphasis on trying to explain their perspective to the world,” Ms Crouch told SBS News.

“The worst case scenario is that Myanmar goes into self-imposed isolation … people in Myanmar are inclined to retreat into a corner and disengage.”

Australian support for Suu Kyi

Ms Crouch said she expects the local Burmese community in Australia to come out in support of Ms Suu Kyi at the summit after they showed similar support ahead of her speech to the UN from Myanmar last year.

"The day before, a group from the Burmese community in Australia went to Canberra to effectively protest and to show the Australian government they were supportive of Suu Kyi's current approach to Rakhine State," Ms Crouch said.

“There is a big disconnect between the majority opinion in Myanmar about the situation and what is evident to the rest of the world.”

"I think there's no doubt they're likely to show up on the weekend."

Myanmar's Suu Kyi slams 'iceberg of 'misinformation' over Rohingya
Myanmar's Suu Kyi slams 'iceberg of 'misinformation' over Rohingya

Landmark summit

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is formed by ten of Australia’s northern neighbouring countries. As well as Myanmar, it includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. This year marks the first time an ASEAN meeting has been held in Australia in its 50-year history. 

Leaders will attend talks on trade, counter-terrorism and the global rise of nationalism, with Philippines President Rodrigo Duturte the only leader expected to miss the event. 

Shadow minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said strong relationships with Australia's South East Asian neighbours is central to peace.

"In terms of our views ... about what is happening in Myanmar, I hope the government can use this opportunity of engagement to put our views about how we think these matters should be dealt with and express our concerns," Senator Wong told the ABC's Radio National on Tuesday. 

“My view is Australia can disagree with actions which particular leaders take but disagreement should rarely lead to disengagement.”

“We live in this region, our interests lie in this region and ASEAN is central to peace and stability in the region and to Australia’s security.”

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