By Roseanne Gerin
Three Rohingya activists have called on Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out against the government military over alleged atrocities against Muslims in volatile northern Rakhine state and for the U.S. government to take stronger action to address the crisis.
About 630,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled northern Rakhine during a military crackdown in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group in late August. Some of those who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh have accused the military of indiscriminate killings, arson, torture, and rape, though the Myanmar government has denied the allegations.
While the government has pledged to put in place some of the recommendations made by an advisory commission on Rakhine that examined the causes of strife in the ethnically and religiously divided state, it has also prevented a fact-finding mission appointed by the United Nations from looking into reports of atrocities committed against Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh.
“Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi should have spoken up before,” Tun Khin, founder and president of the London-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), a group that raises awareness of the plight of the Rohingya, a persecuted and stateless minority considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
“Now she’s doing the same thing; she is covering up the crimes,” he said.
“They are crimes that are happening again and again,” said Tun Khin, one of three Rohingya activists who discussed their perspectives of the crisis in northern Rakhine in Washington on Nov. 1. “It’s never-ending now.”
Thousands of Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh during another crackdown by the military in response to smaller-scale attacks by the same Muslim militant group on border patrol stations in October 2016.
A report issued by BROUK on Nov. 1 supports previous evidence by human rights groups of atrocities committed by security forces against the Rohingya in recent months. BROUK interviewed a dozen refugees living in displacement camps in Bangladesh, documenting physical evidence of the atrocities, including rape, gunshot wounds, and injuries from landmines.
Myo Win, executive director of Smile Education and Development Foundation, an interfaith organization based in Yangon, agreed that Aung San Suu Kyi should speak out against the military.
“She should not defend the military,” he said.
“She should not ask why people are fleeing [from northern Rakhine], and why they are remaining,” he said, referring to her national address in September in which she indicated that the government did not know why the Rohingya were still fleeing the area, since subsequent attacks and military operations had ended on Sept. 5.
Wai Wai Nu, director of the Women Peace Network Arakan, a Yangon-based organization that conducts training to promote better understanding between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine people in western Myanmar, noted that despite the government’s statement that the crackdown had ended, Rohingya continue to flee Myanmar because the violence against them is ongoing.
Looting of their property continues because security forces have signaled that they will not protect them on account of their religion, while the state has prevented international NGOs from providing humanitarian aid, she said.
“Generally, the [ethnic] Rakhine [people] are encouraged or just allowed to loot properties of the Rohingya in front of everybody,” said Wai Wai Nu, who spent seven years in prison because her father was a member of parliament for the opposition.
“They just come and take goats and cows…sometimes along with security forces, sometimes without,” she said. “It’s not happening everywhere, but in most of the cases looters have been given impunity.”
As a first step, Aung San Suu Kyi must acknowledge there is a conflict in Rakhine, said Wai Wai Nu, who also cofounded the group Justice for Women, a network of female lawyers who provide legal aid to women in Myanmar.
“She can do it, and she has to do it,” she said, adding that the state counselor should use her moral authority and principles to forge peace in Myanmar.
“She can change the narrative by using her moral authority,” she said.
On Nov. 2, Aung San Suu Kyi paid a brief and unexpected visit to northern Rakhine state where she met with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, Muslims, and other ethnic minorities who live in the region to discuss the need for them to live peacefully together and the government’s humanitarian plans.
The Nobel laureate has come under fire by the international community for not speaking out about the treatment of the Rohingya in what the U.N. and others call “ethnic cleansing” in the region — an allegation Myanmar has rejected.
The day after Aung San Suu Kyi’s first visit to Rakhine since the two most recent crackdowns, U.S. Congressmen Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Steve Chabot (R-OH), former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, introduced bipartisan legislation to reimpose sanctions on the Myanmar military in response to the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
The legislation would prohibit U.S. military assistance to Myanmar until the perpetrators of atrocities are held accountable; impose trade, visa, and financial restrictions on the perpetrators; require reporting on “the ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide taking place”; support investigations into the prosecution of war criminals; and promote economic development in Myanmar.
“The Burmese military drafted a constitution which allows it to operate with impunity which means that civilian leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi have no meaningful way to curb military abuses,” Engle said before the three activists spoke on Nov. 1.
“So I think we need to reconsider our policies now toward these Burmese military leaders who perpetuated these abuses,” he said.
If the bill goes through, it would be much more forceful than a statement that the U.S. government issued on Oct. 24 that said it is rescinding invitations for senior Myanmar military officials to attend U.S.-sponsored events and will deem military units involved in operations in northern Rakhine ineligible to participate in U.S. assistance programs.
The restrictions also called for unimpeded access to northern Rakhine for a United Nations fact-finding mission, international organizations, and the media, but U.S. officials did not go so far as to characterize the treatment of the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing.
‘US is not doing enough’
“I want to press again that we must bring those responsible to justice,” said Tun Khin, who calls the systematic violence against and persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar “genocide.”
“The U.S. must take stronger action,” he said. “The U.S. is not doing enough. It’s very disappointing. Whether they are still thinking about ethnic cleansing or not, the U.S. government must call immediately for a U.N.-mandated arms embargo and targeted sanctions and must send a U.N. peacekeeping force to protect the lives of the Rohingya.”
He also said the U.N. Security Council must pass a resolution referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands, for failing to investigate mass atrocities against the Rohingya.
Two days later, his call was echoed by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which issued a statement urging U.N. member countries to pursue processes for gathering criminal evidence to advance prosecutions in the ICC and other courts.
On Monday, the U.N. Security Council abandoned plans to adopt a resolution after China strongly opposed the move. Instead, it issued a statement calling for an end to the violence in Rakhine state, full access for humanitarian aid workers in the conflict zone, and the return of the Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.
Though U.S. President Donald Trump’s current 12-day tour of five Asian countries does not include Myanmar, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to visit the country on Nov. 15 to discuss the Rohingya crisis with Myanmar government leaders.
“It is important now for the U.S. government to support long-term democracy and human rights work in Burma,” said Tun Khin, referring to Myanmar by its previous name. “Currently what we are seeing is that Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is not perpetrating these crimes, but the anti-Rohingya campaign and hate speech are spreading out from there.”
“We want to live side by side with the [ethnic] Rakhine community,” he said. “The problem is the government has no political will to resolve the issue.”
“In this case, the U.S. government must press the [ruling ] NLD [National League for Democracy] government to coordinate with Rohingya leaders and Rakhine leaders to come together for dialogue, and the U.S. government and the international community must support these kind of programs.”