House of Representatives Speech- Akha People

I rise to speak on this motion moved by the member for Mallee which, among other things, calls for assistance in helping the Akha people work towards self-determination and for increased Australian aid for the Akha people. I acknowledge the many difficult issues facing this group, and I would also like to acknowledge the intent of the member for Mallee in moving this motion to seek to draw attention to their plight.

I rise to speak on this motion moved by the member for Mallee which, among other things, calls for assistance in helping the Akha people work towards self-determination and for increased Australian aid for the Akha people. I acknowledge the many difficult issues facing this group, and I would also like to acknowledge the intent of the member for Mallee in moving this motion to seek to draw attention to their plight.

The Akha are a tribal population of nearly half a million who live in the hills of eastern Burma, northern Thailand, south-western China and north-western Laos. The Akha have a rich history stretching back around 1,500 years. It is believed that their tribe originated in Mongolia and migrated south through China to their current locations in the hills of what is sometimes called the Golden Triangle, which, of course, crosses many international borders. Like the Kurds in the Middle East, this complicates issues for the Akha, as relations do not need to be made with one government but with many. The fact that one of the main nations where the Akha live—Burma—is an undemocratic and oppressive dictatorship with an appalling human rights record does not help their cause either. There is no doubt that many Akha have been displaced by conflict, particularly on the Thailand-Burma border, and that relations between the national governments and the Akha need to be substantially improved for the good of these people.

In the case of the Akha, as with a number of other ethnic minority groups, many have found refuge in Thailand. There continue to be issues related to the conditions and the status of ethnic minorities in Thailand, especially hill tribes in northern Thailand. However, I understand the new Thai government has put land reform on its agenda. This could address some of the issues confronting poorer communities and regional Thailand, which would, of course, include the Akha people. I do not, however, fully support the text of this motion. This is not because I do not believe that the Akha people deserve our assistance, nor because I approve of the treatment of this group of people by the Burmese government, but because there are numerous minority groups in the region—the region that has been referred to by the member for Mallee—who face disadvantage. The Rudd government’s policy is to offer assistance to all of them and not to single out one group such as the Akha. Indeed, the member for Mallee, in his speech, referred to many other groups in this part of South-East Asia, which indicates that he too is aware of other groups that are suffering difficult conditions.

The Australian government is committed to promoting and protecting human rights, whether domestically or internationally, through bilateral dialogue, representations and engagement with relevant multilateral institutions, including the United Nations. It is important to bear in mind that, while the plight of the Akha people is certainly worthy of attention, there are many other ethnic minority communities in South-East Asia—and one could name the Shan, the Mon and the Karen minorities of Burma—that are facing similar issues to those confronted by the Akha people.

Ethnic minorities can face challenges such as inequitable access to land, shelter, education and health care. Many of these minority groups are traditionally spread across a number of countries, particularly in the Golden Triangle region, although some have sought refuge in places such as the United States, Canada and Scandinavia, and there are small numbers here in Australia.

Many of these minority communities, not just the Akha, have been displaced through conflict. The Australian government looks to support the advancement of and ensure the equitable treatment of all ethnic minority groups, including the Akha, which is why the Commonwealth provides assistance to displaced persons in the camps along the Thai-Burma border. Since 2003 this assistance has amounted to over $5.2 million. Australia is also supporting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in improving protection for vulnerable refugees, including children, in camps along the Thai-Burma border through AusAID’s International Refugee Fund and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s Displaced Persons Program. Australia also supported the placement of 17 volunteer positions on the Thai-Burma border in 2007-08 through Australian Volunteers International, Volunteering for International Development from Australia and Australian youth ambassadors to build the capacity of organisations working with refugees.

The Australian government continues to press the Burmese regime to hold a genuine dialogue with opposition groups and ethnic minorities aimed at political reform and equitable treatment for all Burmese. The Australian government also raises the situation of ethnic minorities in its human rights dialogues with Vietnam, Laos and China. It is important to us as a government that our nation is developing stronger economic and cultural ties with our Asian friends, that our relationship remains open and honest and that we are comfortable raising human rights issues with each of those countries. It is for that reason that the Australian government hosted the human rights dialogue with China in February of this year and with Vietnam in August 2008.

However, I am not convinced that the Australian government should be calling on the Burmese, Thai, Lao and Chinese governments, as the motion indicates, to offer self-determination to the Akha people. It is very difficult and probably not appropriate for us here in this place to make an assessment of whether self-determination is the best course of action for the Akha, nor indeed whether that end is achievable. The best solution is one where national governments work in conjunction with the Akha people to achieve fair and equitable outcomes within existing borders. I have every faith that the Australian government will continue to work towards this goal for the benefit of the Akha people and other minority groups in the South-East Asian region.

That is the basis on which Australia is co-chairing with Indonesia a ministerial meeting of the Bali Process on human trafficking and people-smuggling in Bali next month, on 14 and 15 April. This is the premier regional organisation dealing with these problems and is attended by regional governments. The Minister for Foreign Affairs will lead the Australian delegation and co-host the meeting with the Indonesian foreign minister. It is through these channels that dialogue with relevant governments in regard to the treatment of ethnic minorities can be furthered, and I know that the Australian government has already shown by its dialogue with Asian nations on the issue of human rights that it will stand up as a supporter of those who are being mistreated and persecuted in South-East Asia.

It is, of course, always worth while for this House to consider groups in difficult circumstances, like the Akha people. It is noteworthy that the existence of this group was drawn to the member for Mallee’s attention by works that are being done by people in his electorate, and it is consistent with what we know of Australians that, as a people, we are prepared to reach out and help people in needy and difficult circumstances across the world. We are prepared to recognise the value that, in particular, people from diverse ethnic groups can bring so as to enrich all of our lives. I commend the member for Mallee for drawing the attention of the House to the circumstances being encountered by this group of people living in the hill country in South-East Asia. While I have, as I have indicated, a small disagreement about the appropriate course of action for the calls that might or might not be made on the national governments that presently govern these people, certainly the motion as a whole has my support for drawing attention to the circumstances of this group.