By Senior Campaign Agent Guinevere Poncia
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is sandwiched between Thailand, China, Laos, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. It is home to a multitude of ethnic groups, including a Muslim minority, the Rohingya, in the North-Western Rakhine state. Recently, evidence has come to light of a systematic ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military. UN human rights expert Yanghee Lee recently reported that information “indicates the government may be trying to expel the Rohingya population from the country altogether”.
By and large, the Rohingya are considered by the government in Myanmar to be illegal immigrants who migrated to the state following Burmese independence from British colonial rule in 1948. This is also a common view amongst Myanmar nationals. Consequently, the Rohingya cannot claim citizenship, or travel freely. Recently, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh following persecution. Military presence in the Rakhine is part of Myanmar’s crackdown on insurgent groups, but the Rohingya claim that the military is targeting them indiscriminately. Refugees have recounted horrific experience of gang rape, torture, and infanticide (detailed in this UN report) The UN is particularly concerned about ‘re-victimisation’ of refugees into forced labour or trafficking.
Myanmar’s History and Aung San Suu Kyi
Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority nation. Until recently, it has been a notoriously secretive, isolationist state, under oppressive military rule from 1962. The most recent military junta seized power in 1988, and condemned Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the pro-democracy movement, to house arrest soon after. The regime is now infamous for its human rights abuses.
2015 saw the first openly contended election in Myanmar for a quarter of a decade, hence, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in the elections, and she became State Counsellor (akin to the role of Prime Minister, due to being barred from the presidency), many had high hopes.
Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction concerning atrocities in the Rohingya state has garnered intense international criticism, especially from the UN. Aung San Suu Kyi faces a particular problem, in that the military is autonomous, and unlikely beholden to any external influence. Moreover, domestic pressure is also lacking, with public opinion being broadly in support of the military’s action. So far, Suu Kyi has been unwilling to comment on the situation, avoiding interviews with all but a few foreign journalists. In April 2017, she stated in a rare interview that “ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening”. She also recently clashed with the UN’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, over Suu Kyi's rejection of an international probe into the military’s action.
What is happening now?
Recent displacement of the Rohingya dates back to at least 2012. In 2013, there were nationwide anti-Muslim riots. Yanghee Lee is calling for the UN to begin a Commission of Inquiry into the current episodes of violence, as well as those in 2012 and 2014. However, due to continuing restrictions, foreign journalists are unable to verify the conditions in the Rakhine. In addition, many European nations, despite backing the probe proffered by Mogherini, are unwilling to back the calls for such an in-depth investigation, due to fears of shattering recent and future progress in Myanmar towards becoming a more democratic state. Many still place faith in Aung San Suu Kyi to take action.
In May 2017, a new round of peace talks in the capital Naypyidaw began, aiming to quell regional violence. Scepticism hangs over the talks, and notably, the issues in the Rakhine state will not be under discussion.
Clearly, any action that can be taken by the international community must take into account the delicate balance that currently exists in Myanmar between its democratic and military facets, which, given its recent inception, could easily be destabilised. However, one must ask, that with evidence of atrocities against the Rohingya, for how much longer can large-scale human suffering play second fiddle to politics?
On August 25th 2017, the situation in Myanmar entered a new phase of violence. Muslim militants attacked several police border posts, causing an unprecedented and unrelenting retaliation by both the military and Buddhist militants. In just two weeks, over 120,000 Rohingya have fled, and an unknown number have been slaughtered.
Access to the entire area is still severely restricted for foreign journalists and UN aid alike, however, this did not stop a BBC journalist from witnessing a burning village just south of Maungdaw. It also does not stop the world-wide impact of the tales from the Rohingya themselves of children being beheaded, men being burnt alive, or Myanmar’s military lacing the border with land mines to deliberately target fleeing refugees.
Even as accounts of massacres at Rohingya villages such as Tula Toli continue to emerge, state authorities continue to claim that Muslim Rohingyas are burning their own villages. This, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from those survivors who have made it to Bangladesh. So many have drowned on the treacherous Naf river crossing that the Bangladeshi authorities have blocked direct access.
Aung San Suu Kyi has stayed largely silent, bar accusing aid workers of helping “terrorists”. She also claimed on a phone call to President Erdogan (and then on a later Facebook post) of Turkey that “a huge iceberg of misinformation” regarding the conflict, planted again by the same “terrorists”, has worsened the situation. Unsurprisingly, and justifiably, her international reputation as a beacon of hope and liberty has been shattered. Calls to revoke her Nobel peace Prize are rife, as is international condemnation - Erdogan has gone as far as accusing the Burmese government of genocide. In was is certainly Suu Kyi’s “biggest challenge” the world waits with baited breath for action which may never come, especially given Myanmar’s negotiations with China and Russia to block any UNSC resolutions on the matter.
Sources and further reading:
- 'Report of OHCHR mission to Bangladesh - Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016', United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner (3 February 2017)
- 'Aung San Suu Kyi denies ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar', The Guardian (5 April 2017)
- Aela Callan, 'The trouble with Aung San Suu Kyi', Al Jazeera (12 May 2017)
- 'Myanmar wants ethnic cleansing of Rohingya - UN official', BBC (24 November 2016)
- 'Myanmar may be seeking to expel all Rohingya, says UN', The Guardian (14 March 2017)
- 'Myanmar: Displaced Rohingya at risk of ‘re-victimization’ warns UN refugee agency', UN News Centre (4 May 2017)
- 'Who will help Myanmar's Rohingya?', BBC (10 January 2017)
- 'Myanmar's Suu Kyi opens fresh round of peace talks', Al Jazeera (24 May 2017)
- Devjyot Ghoshal, 'The strongest words of condemnation for Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya are her own', Quartz (7 September 2017)
- Jacob Judah, 'Strip Aung San Suu Kyi of Her Nobel Prize', NY Times (7 September 2017)
- Oliver Holmes, 'Massacre at Tula Toli: Rohingya recall horror of Myanmar army attack', The Guardian (7 September 2017)
- Jonathan Head, 'BBC reporter in Rakhine: 'A Muslim village was burning’', BBC (7 September 2017)
- Sanjoy Majumder, 'Rohingya Muslims: Tales of horror from Myanmar', BBC (7 September 2017)
- Will Worley, 'Burma: Rohingya children 'beheaded and burned alive' as refugees continue to flood into Bangladesh to escape violence', The Independent (2 September 2017)
- Simon Lewis and Wa Lone, 'Explosions rock Myanmar area near Bangladesh border amid Rohingya exodus', Reuters (4 September 2017)
- Oliver Holmes, 'Aung Sang Suu Kyi's office accuses aid workers of helping 'terrorists' in Myanmar', The Guardian (28 August 2017)
- Micheal Safi, 'Aung San Suu Kyi defends her handling of Myanmar violence', The Guardian (7 September 2017)
Image @UN Geneva/Violaine Martin, Flickr