The international community has said that human rights violations in western Myanmar now amount to “ethnic cleansing”. State counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the de facto leader of the government, bears a heavy responsibility.
The problem began late last month in Rakhine state, when the military and police force launched clearance operations after armed groups thought to be extremists from the Rohingya ethnic minority attacked police posts.
More than 400,000 residents – just less than half of Rakhine’s Rohingya population – have since fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. The military and other forces are suspected of setting fire to villages and shooting civilians. Photos taken by satellite on September 16 show the near total destruction of 214 villages in Rakhine since operations began.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was right to express grave concern and urge Myanmar’s authorities to end military operations and allow the refugees to return. There even have been calls for Suu Kyi to return her Nobel Peace Prize, awarded when she led the democracy movement while under house arrest by the military junta.
Suu Kyi’s approach of ignoring the Rohingya issue until international criticism grows louder cannot be overlooked. In an address to her nation on Tuesday, she finally acknowledged the Rohingya were being persecuted: “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” However, she also justified the military’s actions by saying it had adhered to its code of conduct.
Late last month, an advisory commission chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan completed its final report, which recommends steps including allowing the return of Rohingya residents.
Suu Kyi has indicated she will accept the recommendations. However, widespread public support for the military crackdown in Rakhine means implementing them will not be easy.
The Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship. About 90 per cent of the country’s citizens are Buddhist, and there is growing resentment against Muslims – including the Rohingya, whom many want expelled from the nation. Myanmar’s current constitution, written under junta rule, reserves one quarter of parliamentary seats for military officers. The military also controls the three ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs, meaning it still wields the real power when it comes to maintaining security.
As a civilian leader, Suu Kyi’s powers are limited. But if she allows the persecution of the Rohingya to go unaddressed, extremist groups such as the Islamic State could take advantage of communal tensions and discontent and stream into the region. This could fan the flames of what is now a smouldering insurgency into raging terrorism.
Suu Kyi won overwhelming support from the public when Myanmar reinstated electoral democracy two years ago. She now needs to convince the military and the people of her country to cooperate on the Rohingya issue.
Essential to her cause is international pressure on the military and assistance for the refugees.
Japan is doing its part, pledging $4 million (Bt132 million) in emergency humanitarian aid and sending a parliamentary delegation to Nay Pyi Taw. Other countries must also step up to the plate to ensure Myanmar does not slide backwards on its path of democratisation.