Crushed hopes greet Aung San Suu Kyi in Australia

By Agency Published on Mar 18, 2018 11:13 AM IST

Sydney: The long journey to find peace for Rohingya refugee Kobir Ahmed can be told through the different birth countries of his eight children -- Myanmar, Malaysia and Australia -- although they remain citizens of no nation.

He now helps run a grocery store in suburban Australia where he lives in a small community of Rohingya, the persecuted Muslim minority who have fled army-led violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state in their hundreds of thousands.

"They are not like other militaries of the world. Killing people is nothing for them," the 44-year-old told AFP of the army's hardline tactics against his people.

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi was in Sydney today for a special Australia-ASEAN summit, with her presence seen as a crushing reminder of lost hope. She is among nine leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations holding talks, including Cambodian strongman Hun Sen and Vietnam's Nguyen Xuan Phuc -- both accused of oppression.

Their attendance sparked human rights protests, with thousands making their feelings known, particularly about Aung San Suu Kyi's perceived inaction to halt what the UN says bears "the hallmarks of genocide".

"The situation in Burma wasn't this bad before Aung Sung Suu Kyi came in power," said Ahmed, who arrived in Australia on a rickety boat crammed with more than 100 people in 2013. "Before, we were tortured, we weren't allowed to work or move independently -- we were under a lot of scrutiny -- but we could at least live there. But after she emerged, we were all forced to leave the country."

A bid by Australian lawyers to prosecute Suu Kyi for "crimes against humanity" was rejected Sunday after the country's attorney general said she had immunity from prosecution.

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since Myanmar launched a crackdown on insurgents six months ago, with many describing arson, murder and rape at the hands of soldiers and vigilante mobs in the majority Buddhist country.

Myanmar has vehemently denied allegations of ethnic cleansing, insisting it was responding to attacks by Muslim militants in late August. The Rohingya in Australia number in the thousands, with many arriving over the years by boat seeking some form of citizenship status they were denied in Myanmar and could not attain in transit countries.

Their struggle for "status" remains uncertain under Canberra's tough immigration policies. For most citizenship is disallowed, advocates say, under strict conditions that sees the Rohingya applying for bridging visas every few years in the hope that Australia relaxes its hardline stance on asylum-seekers designed to discourage boatpeople.

Many who attempted the dangerous journey after Canberra further tightened its borders languish in Pacific island camps, where those trying to enter Australia by boat are now sent. "We are very much happy to obey the rules and the law... just give us a chance to prove that we are a good citizens," Shawfikul Islam, from the Australian Burmese Rohingya Organisation, told AFP.

Despite the uncertainty, many Rohingya are resilient and the community tight-knit. They often lack formal education, with the opportunity of schooling for their children one of their biggest hopes.

"For myself, my chance is over as I didn't go to school and when I grew up in Myanmar I lost all my rights," refugee Jumabi, who arrived via boat with her family six years ago, told AFP.

"But here, these children have a great chance, and a future." - 'Crimes against humanity' - Under Myanmar's complex political system the military maintain control of the security forces, but Aung San Suu Kyi has been at the centre of worldwide condemnation for failing to use her influence to change attitudes among the majority-Buddhist Bamar.

Australia, which was elected to the UN Human Rights Council last year, has been under pressure to take a stronger stand on Myanmar. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull vowed to address human rights issues at the Sydney summit, although that will likely be behind closed doors and not in public.

Amnesty International has accused ASEAN leaders of being "shamefully silent" on Myanmar. "Myanmar's regional neighbours -- including Australia and ASEAN -- must send a signal that crimes against humanity are unacceptable and will not go unpunished," said Amnesty's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific James Gomez. For Australia's Rohingya community, there is little belief that Aung San Suu Kyi will change.