THE AUSTRALIAN defence department plans to spend over US$300,000 on training programmes for the Burmese military in 2018, documents released under freedom of information laws, and reported by The Guardian, show.
Expenditures include money for English lessons, event attendances and training courses. The funding will also secure Burma’s (Myanmar) participation in the Pirap Jabiru multilateral military exercises in the region that Australia cohosts with Thailand.
Burma’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has faced accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide for its so-called “clearance operations” against the Rohingya community in Rakhine State. Since August 2017, almost 700,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, citing mounting violence from the military, including mass killings, rape, and burning of Rohingya villages.
The United Nations has labelled the crackdown a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Last month, UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar Yanghee Lee said the situation bore all the “hallmarks of genocide,” and accused Burma’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi of possible crimes against humanity.
While other countries are cutting ties with Burma’s military, Australia is maintaining a “modest program of engagement.”
“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,” a briefing note from the defence department said.
“This engagement is designed to expose the Tatmadaw to the ways of a modern, professional defence force and highlight the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law.”
As reported by The Guardian, the note recognised Australia’s differing approach to its allies, saying: “Each country needs to make its own decision on engagement with the Tatmadaw.”
Both the US and Canada have imposed targeted sanctions against the military’s leaders.
For almost half a century, the Tatmadaw was shunned by Western nations, including Australia, as it suppressed political freedoms and crushed dissent in the country. But after reform and the introduction of a pseudo-civilian government, international relations started to improve.
Australia announced its re-engagement with the military in 2014, when the warship HMAS Childers arrived at Yangon’s port as Burma began to implement economic and political reforms.
In the past, Australia’s continued engagement with the Tatmadaw has drawn criticism from rights groups.
Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director, told The Sydney Morning Herald back in September: “Governments around the world who continue to train or sell arms to Myanmar’s military are propping up a force that is carrying out a vicious campaign against Rohingya that amounts to crimes against humanity.”
Despite the criticism, Australia has not deviated from its resolve to maintain ties, holding its first bilateral defence cooperation talks with Burma in 2017 with plans to hold further talks this year.
“Australia’s bilateral defence engagement with Myanmar is limited to humanitarian and non-combat areas such as disaster relief, peacekeeping, aviation safety and English-language training,” a defence department spokesperson said.
“Maintaining this engagement has enabled senior Australian military officials to directly raise concerns on Rakhine with their Myanmar counterparts.”