Where is Asia’s anguish over the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and the jailing of journalists who helped expose it? In the haunting silence are whispers of complicity
The international community beyond Asia has not been timid about condemning the unjust sentences given two Myanmar journalists on Monday for reporting on the genocide that’s taken place against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state. From the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, though, comes not a murmur – about the crimes against humanity or the suppression of the media.
Even if there is still doubt in some quarters that mass murder has taken place on a horrific scale in Myanmar, there can be no question that it was morally reprehensible to jail the two Reuters journalists who shed light on the facts as best they could. Asean, of which Myanmar is a member, should not be ignoring the case, and least of all immediate neighbour Thailand.
Myanmar nationals Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were jailed for seven years for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, half the maximum possible punishment. They were arrested in Yangon last December after meeting police officers who handed them secret information about the Rakhine atrocities. As soon as the meeting ended, other police arrested them for being in possession of state secrets. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” Kyaw Soe Oo said after sentencing, “[but] we’re not exactly shocked by the verdict.”
What they “did wrong”, of course, was tell the truth. They exposed concrete evidence about the military “clearing operation” that proved to be a thinly disguised slaughter. Their findings gave international rights organisations and the United Nations cause to probe further. A UN fact-finding commission confirmed the worst of the accusations and even named the high-ranking security officers responsible for what is now being called genocide.
Saying there is evidence that the genocide was planned in advance, these authorities want armed forces commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and others hauled before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity. It was Min Aung Hlaing who spoke at the height of the operations about the “long-standing” problem posed by the Rohingya, whom he and Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, disparage as “Bengalis” with no right to live in their country. Solving the “problem”, the senior general said, had “become an unfinished job despite the efforts of previous governments. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.”
Those chilling words encapsulate a sprawling, vicious reprisal against the Rohingya that was sparked by a limited burst of attacks on state security outposts by a frustrated group of Rohingya militants. After a fury of rape, murder and arson, more than 700,000 Rohingya had been forced across the Bangladesh border, where they remain in rough refugee camps.
Myanmar is in no way obliged to heed foreign condemnation or submit its leaders to trial at The Hague. Another form of international inquiry would be needed. In the meantime the economic sanctions that were eased to give Suu Kyi a chance to nurture democracy should be doubly re-imposed. That would certainly have an impact on her wayward government, and the impact would be far greater if Asia backed demands for a shift in the reckless, immoral course that Myanmar has taken.
Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who once embodied hope, now appears heartless. She has not tamed her cruel generals but rather has become their puppet. Asia needs to speak to her, making the global voice louder. Perhaps she’ll listen yet.