Diversity and autocracy

Myanmar is home to more than 51 million people and is the largest country by land area in South-East Asia. It is positioned at a regional crossroads, exposed to around 40 per cent of the world’s population, bordering Thailand and Laos to the East, China to the North, Malaysia to the South and Bangladesh and India to the West.

Myanmar became independent from the British in 1948. Its 70 years of post-colonial independence have been characterised by fraught attempts at democracy, periods of oppressive military rule and internal conflict between the nation’s ethnic groups.

Bamar (Birmins) are practising Buddhists and the most powerful ethnic group in Myanmar, as well as the most numerous, comprising two-thirds of the population. They have held the balance of military and political power since Burma’s independence. Important minority ethnic groups include the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Rohingya, and Chin peoples, who occupy Myanmar’s border regions. Myanmar’s founding father, Aung San, promised these groups autonomy under the 1947 Panglong Agreement, but following his assassination in 1948 this autonomy was never realised. Periods of civil war between these groups and the Birmin majority have eventuated since.

In 2015, Myanmar held its first democratic elections for 50 years. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a majority. Despite widespread hope that this would herald a new era of democratic peace in Burma, significant concerns remain about the government’s treatment of minority ethnic groups, particularly with respect to the Rohingya.

The Rohingya

Rohingya Muslims are not recognised by the government as citizens - even though most have lived in Myanmar for generations. The Rohingya, who make up nearly one million people in Myanmar, are therefore stateless. Rohingya are barred from voting or fielding candidates in elections, and have very limited access to health care and restricted freedom of movement.

Following violent clashes between the Rohingya and the majority Rakhine people of Rakhine State in 2012, more than 120,000 Rohingya fled their homes and remain displaced today. According to the UNHCR, around 100,000 Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar over the Bangladeshi border and on boats to Thailand and Malaysia in 2014-15 alone. Recent reports from these refugees indicate that they having been suffering violent persecution at the hands of the Myanmar military.

Asylum seekers to Australia

Australia’s diplomatic relations with Myanmar have strengthened in recent years, particularly since the 2015 democratic elections. In the 2016-17 financial year, Australia spent around 1.6 per cent of its Overseas Development Aid on Myanmar, supporting humanitarian assistance and the peace process.

Additionally, as part of its Humanitarian Programme in 2015-16, the Australian government granted visas to 1951 applicants from Myanmar, who have been in the top three largest groups of successful applicants under this programme each year since 2011. As at April 2017 there are currently 57 stateless people in community detention in Australia awaiting determination of their residential status: their last country of residence is not provided, but many of them are likely Rohingya.

Beyond its Humanitarian Programme quota, Australia has not been actively involved or engaged in the issue of the Rohingya: in response to requests that Australia resettle Rohingya asylum seekers pushed back by Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously said in 2015: 'nope, nope, nope'. More recently, Australia’s government has refused to support a UNHCR investigation into the ongoing Rakhine state conflict.

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Last updated August 2017.