In a surprising turn of events, the Myanmar military has come forward in a bizarre news conference defending its crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority as part of a concerted counterinsurgency effort. For the first time, top generals openly addressed the mounting denunciations of human right abuses, in which it is estimated that tens of thousands of Rohingya have been displaced, detained and tortured. General Mya Tun Oo, chief of the General Staff, spoke of being “sad because of this kind of reckless accusations and neglect of the good things that the government and the military have done.” His candid repudiation of these human rights abuses, despite the overwhelming evidence, is only the most recent example of a larger problem.
The rhetoric of denial from the Myanmar government and military has repeatedly followed these allegations of human rights abuses. Last year, the chairman of the Rakhine State Investigation, U Aung Win, denied allegations of rape, arguing that since Rohingya women “are very dirty”, soldiers would not rape them. Similarly, a government spokesman, when probed by Reuters about the mounting evidence and claims of sexual violence simply replied: “there’s no logical way of committing rape in the middle of a big village of 800 homes, where insurgents are hiding.”
But, it is the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, who despite her Nobel Peace Prize status has proved unable – or unwilling – to effectively respond to the brutal treatment of the Rohingya minority which is the most deafening. Her party, the National League for Democracy, are heavily constrained by the military due to the country’s power-sharing policy: all law enforcement must remain under the control of the military regardless of who is in power. Suu Kyi has no control over the military, whose power is entrenched in the constitution and who still holds the exact same ministries as it did ten years ago, when it still held power, giving them sole authority to carry out military operations with little oversight.
When Suu Kyi won a landslide election in 2015, both Myanmar and the international community presaged a new era of Burmese politics. Suu Kyi, as both a Nobel laureate and a former political prisoner, seemed to epitomise the modern stand against human rights abuses. Therefore, it is not only ironic but also undeniably tragic that her administration has failed to protect the Rohingya people. Though many will still celebrate the successes of Suu Kyi, it is certain how little the state of Rakhine and the Rohingya people seem to matter to the current Burmese government. Widespread anti-Muslim sentiment amongst the majority Buddhist population has been a leading cause for the generations of discrimination that the Rohingya have faced. Seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, over 1 million of them continue to live in conditions equivalent to apartheid South Africa and permitted only a fraction of the rights afforded to the rest of the population.
Speculation mounts that Suu Kyi may actually be complicit in the violence towards the Rohingya as her even though official stance towards them has never been made clear it appears to lean towards the negative. She has previously stated that she does not recognise them as one of the 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar, and has even gone so far as banning officials from uttering the minority group’s name publicly, believing it to have a negative impact on the reconciliation of the Buddhist nation. In 2012, she did not condemn the sectarian violence that broke out under the military government against the Rohingya community in which allegations of ethnic cleansing were made.
This specific conflict even saw Buddhist monks armed with homemade weapons, including Molotov cocktails, and attacking Rohingya villages in the Rakhine state– leaving over 140,000 displaced and at least 100 dead. It is not clear whether Suu Kyi is refraining or refusing to act, yet what she has done so far has amounted to nothing – leaving many of her supporters disillusioned and disappointed.
Suu Kyi’s silence is not an isolated case. The international community has not effectively rallied attention on the issue, with condemnations being limited to a few institutions and individuals. Indeed, the US government, who has been a stark supporter of Suu Kyi’s NLD party and its role in transitioning the country towards a democratic state, has sent mixed messages. Whilst it is unclear what President Trump’s status on the issue is, Barack Obama ignored the crackdown in his last few months as President, instead citing the importance that economic sanctions have “in improving human rights.” Indeed, the Obama administration may have instead made the situation much worse as by removing economic sanctions they effectively rid themselves of an economic leverage for future administrations. This means that they will have to rely solely on diplomacy to enact change, which, in the Trump-era could have devastating consequences.
Though the situation is not entirely negative. Mounting pressure for a UN-backed inquiry of the alleged human rights abuse is beginning to gain traction but we, as the international community, must ensure that the Rohingya’s remain on the agenda. An inquiry is merely a step in the right direction but is by no means a given. The complete cruelty of recent events necessitates that the silence must be broken.
Waiting for Suu Kyi to speak up is no longer an option – the international community must step up, or risk losing the Rohingya people entirely.