Cherie Burton’s Speech at NSW Parliament

Sometimes we have debates in this place about particular cultural groups or events overseas. Sometimes there are objections to this on the ground that it has little to do with the New South Wales Parliament. Some members have said, "What has that got to do with us?" There is a very clear response. Our own citizens, Australians, bear witness to some of the horrible events that have occurred overseas. Although these people are Australians, they also bring with them their culture and their history. That history should not be denied. We need to address what happened historically, recognise it and encourage all Australians to accept it. We do not need to do that in a partisan political way.

The genocide that took place during World War I and its aftermath is a historical event. The victims of this criminal act were the indigenous peoples of the Ottoman Turkish Empire: Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians. Many members of this Chamber have substantial numbers of Australian Hellenic, Australian Armenian and Australian Assyrian people in their communities. Hundreds of thousands of them have made their homes in New South Wales over the past two centuries, including in my electorate. All of these groups suffered at the hands of the government of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

It was as early as 1910 that plans were formulated and published for the elimination of Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Those documents, and millions more like them, are available today, demonstrating the intention of the Ottoman Turkish government of the time. There was a determination on the part of Ottoman Turkish politicians to eliminate non-Turkish identities. With the outbreak of the war, their plans began to be implemented. When the Anzacs landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula, there were Greek people living there, tilling the soil and fishing the waters. There were also Turkish tax collectors, police and soldiers. These non-Turks are the people who were deported; these are the people who were massacred during World War I and after.

When the Anzacs left the Gallipoli Peninsula, they left behind hundreds of prisoners of war—men such as Kogarah-born Petty Officer H. J. E. Kinder and Petty Officer Stephen Gilbert, a salesman from Hurstville, both crewmen of HMAS AE2, and Second Lieutenant, Australian Flying Corps, Laurence Henry Smith, also from Hurstville. The Anzac prisoners of war went through a series of prisoner of war camps, typically being marched from one to another on bread and water rations, in bitter cold or blistering heat. While Kinder, Smith and many of their comrades were eventually released, Gilbert and more than 60 other Anzac prisoners perished from a combination of exposure, disease, malnutrition and exhaustion.

I am indebted to the research of Dr Panayiotis Diamadis, a Director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. It was due to his research that I realised that this is an issue for the people of New South Wales, particularly because our own servicemen witnessed the suffering of the indigenous peoples of Anatolia: the Greeks, the Armenians and the Assyrians. Australian soldiers, sailors and pilots saw columns of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek women and children being forced along the countryside in death marches. They saw their pitiful, bedraggled state. The homes, churches, monasteries and schools of these people became the prison camps of the captured Anzacs and their allies.

The truth of the genocide—the truth of what happened to the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek peoples—is undeniable. It is in the records of our own Australian servicemen. We should remember and learn from such dark chapters in human history. What was the essence of the motivation behind these massacres and deportations? It was hatred—hatred in the form of racism. We need to remember the depths to which humanity can sink if we allow racism and extreme nationalism to take grip. These events occurred 95 years ago. In remembering these events, we do not seek to apportion blame. Nobody in this place blames the current Turkish Government or the current Turkish community. In fact, this is not even a matter of blame. This is a matter of history, and history must neither be erased nor forgotten. We must remember and speak the truth. In this way, we can secure recognition of a genocide which is still very real and very heartfelt by the Australian Hellenic community, by the Australian Armenian community, and by the Assyrian community in Australia today. Lest we forget.

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