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Julie Bishop presses Myanmar leader for 'credible' Rohingya investigation

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop during Question Time on Thursday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

By Lindsay Murdoch
February 18, 2017

Bangkok: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has told Myanmar's de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi Australia is "deeply concerned" about atrocities on Rohingya Muslims documented in a United Nations report

"I have expressed my concerns about the situation in Rakhine State to Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi," Ms Bishop said, referring to the Noble laureate by her official title.

Ms Bishop made the comments after unprecedented condemnation of Myanmar's government, including from Pope Francis, and the passing of a motion in the Australian Senate on Thursday urging the Turnbull government to consider calling for a UN commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in the Buddhist-majority country.

The motion, initiated by Greens foreign affairs spokesman Scott Ludlam and passed without division, followed a series of reports by Fairfax Media on the atrocities.

The reports cited evidence gathered from 70,000 Rohingya leaving in Bangladesh camps after fleeing Rakhine, including the slitting of a baby's throat while he cried out for his mother's milk as she was being gang raped.

Soldiers were also seen stomping on the stomach of a pregnant woman while she was in labour.

Senator Ludlam said he welcomed the Australian Parliament putting aside partisan divides to speak out about the devastation of the more than one million Rohingya who were born in Rakhine and have lived there for generations but who are denied basic rights such as citizenship and freedom of movement.

"For years and years we have seen institutionalised marginalisation and discrimination. Now we are witnesses to horrifying atrocities like gang rape, brutal beatings, disappearances and killings," he said.

Ms Bishop said she had told Ms Suu Kyi's government that Australia expects an already established commission to investigate the atrocities cited in the UN report in a "thorough, credible and impartial manner".

The government commission established in December and led by a retired general has been widely seen as a whitewash.

The government has also set up a separate five-person investigation into the behaviour of security forces, which is also seen as highly unlikely to recommend that any senior military officers be held accountable.

Ms Bishop said the Australian government remains committed to working with Myanmar and others to address "complex humanitarian and development challenges".

Australia has sent more than more than $40 million in aid to Rakhine or Rohingya refugees since 2012.

For months Myanmar's government denied independent reports of mass murders, rapes, forced disappearances and the torching of houses with families locked inside. The UN concluded in a report released on February 3 the incidents "very likely " amounted to crimes against humanity and possibly ethnic cleansing.

The government insisted the deployment of hundred of security forces into towns and villages near the Bangladesh border was part of a four-month "clearance operation" after attacks on police posts in October.

UN officials have said more than 1000 Rohingyas had been killed.

Ms Suu Kyi, who led her National League for Democracy to a landslide victory at elections in late 2015, appears to have little sway with generals who control key security ministries.

She has been widely criticised for failing to stand up for the Rohingya who ultra-Buddhist nationalists regard as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Yanghee Lee, the UN's special envoy for Myanmar, has called for a UN inquiry into the military's abuses of Rohingya, saying she will push for member states to approve it at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 13.

Matt Smith, chief executive of the human rights group Fortify Rights, which has also documented abuses in Rakhine, said a commission of inquiry would have been unthinkable six months ago "but serious momentum is growing daily".

Ms Bishop's response came after a coalition of Australian organisations called on the Turnbull government to condemn the atrocities, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Council for International Development.

The Australian Refugee Council had also called on Australia to increase its humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya and to resettle more of them in Australia.

Only 37 Rohingya refugees have been allowed to resettle in Australia since 2013.

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