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Australia Boosts Burma Aid, Presses for Sectarian Resolution

  • Ron Corben

Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Yangon June 6, 2012.

Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Yangon June 6, 2012.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr is calling on Burmese authorities to resolve sectarian tensions between Rakhine state Muslim and Buddhist communities, and to support local development in that region.

Carr, who spoke to reporters Thursday after talks with his Thai counterpart, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, said solutions to the ongoing conflict between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims had to be addressed at the local level, and that non-Burmese authorities can't resolve the issue alone. More than 115,000 Muslim Rohingya and Buddhists have been forced to live in emergency camps in Rahkine state after sectarian violence last year left up to 200 people dead and hundreds of homes and shops torched in arson attacks.

Thousands of Rohingya, including women and children, have put their lives at risk by taking to the seas — often in unsafe craft — hoping to reach South East Asian destinations such as Thailand and Malaysia. Human rights groups say hundreds of refugees have been lost at sea.

“We did discuss [the flight of Rohingya] and agreed that the answer to this movement of people... needs to be humanitarian settlement within Rahkine that addresses the question of their citizenship status and sees them resettled and integrated into the economy," he said.

Carr, visiting Laos and Thailand, announced that Australia is providing a $2.5 million in aid to Burma, half of it going for humanitarian assistance in Rakhine, where the United Nations human rights envoy to Burma recently described sanitation conditions among Rohingya Muslim community camps as “inadequate.”

“On Rakhine state we are deeply concerned about the impact of the rainy season on conditions for the displaced population," he said, explaining that special emphasis will be placed on allocating funds specifically for shelter and access to clean water and sanitation. "I’ve seen photos of conditions in these hastily constructed refugee camps and they underline again the sometimes desperate state of these people.”

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Australia is also to provide nearly $770,000 in assistance to Kachin state, where thousands were displaced after months of fighting between Burmese troops and Kachin fighters when the army breached a longstanding cease-fire agreement in June 2011.

Initial rounds of peace talks have been under way between the Army and the rebels, and more than half a million dollars are being provided for mine-clearing in eastern Burma.

Thailand has received up to 2,000 Rohingya who are now being held in temporary camps. The Thai government is allowing Rohingya to remain in the country for six months. An unknown number have been smuggled across the border into Malaysia, and some Thai military personnel were recently accused of aiding human trafficking gangs.

Carr said he welcomed efforts by Burma’s president, Thein Sein, to restore order in Rahkine and “efforts” to address “underlying political dimensions” to what he termed “this difficult issue.”

But the Australian foreign minister said the solution to Rahkine's conflict and development issues lay at the local level, and that sheer population numbers of those displaced are too large to be accommodated by a refugee or asylum program.

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