Suu Kyi has to rein in the violence
With foreign-backed insurgents now in the picture, the first step to peace becomes protecting Rohingya civilians
The Myanmar government and Association of Southeast Asian Nations are struggling to find adequate solutions to the Rohingya crisis, but mere diplomacy is unlikely to help the benighted Muslim population concentrated in northeastern Rakhine state.
The United Nations’ Human Rights Office claims to be receiving daily reports of rapes, murders and other horrors. Zeid Raad al-Hussein, its point man on rights, has condemned Nay Pyi Taw’s approach to the crisis as “counterproductive, even callous”.
Top Asean diplomats have met Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss the matter, but quick solutions are not the bloc’s style, and at most all we can expect for now are humanitarian measures for the Rohingya refugees fleeing their home territories as government troops continue menacing them.
Indeed, this is a complex issue with far-reaching implications across the region, and it will take considerable time to get at the roots of the problem.
The Rohingya have long been the targets of state violence – and in some instances allegedly instigated it themselves. The current crisis began on October 9 when a Border Guard Police post was attacked and then a month later a senior army officer was killed, purportedly by armed Rohingya militants. The military has responded vengefully and brutally, with no clear intent of restoring order or even simple control.
Rights organisations claim to have documented summary executions in Rakhine, along with arson, forcible expulsion and rape, including sexual assaults on girls. More than 20,000 Rohingya of all ages have fled to the nearest border, with Bangladesh, and an estimated 30,000 more are displaced. Despite these stark claims, the situation has become further complicated with reports of insurgent activity in the troubled area. The International Crisis Group says Harakah al-Yaqin – also known as the Faith Movement – is introducing tactics of guerrilla warfare into the equation.
Myanmar is of course familiar with insurgencies, government forces routinely clashing with armed ethnic minority groups. But the appearance of the Faith Movement inserts a worrying international presence backed by quasi-religious fervour and a headquarters in Saudi Arabia. The Rohingya predicament thus becomes far more difficult to resolve.
The armed uprising in Rakhine earns legitimacy, though, from decades of state discrimination against the Rohingya. Despite century-old roots in the country, they are officially viewed as foreigners, denied citizenship and restricted in travel. Buddhist zealots including monks advocate their exile. As well, the border attack and killing of an army officer have drawn a reaction of grossly disproportionate force from the authorities, whose troops counter-attack with ruthless disregard for civilian wellbeing. Foreign aid workers and news media are barred from the area.
The temptation to blame Suu Kyi for the worsening situation must be resisted, since she seemingly wields little power over the entrenched military. She cannot however escape direct responsibility as she brings her still-formidable domestic and international popularity to bear in overseeing an effective
solution to the crisis.
To begin with, as the country’s de facto leader, Suu Kyi must summon the authority to halt military violence against civilians in Rakhine. Tensions will ease further if she demands an immediate investigation into events there.
The bigoted majority among her electorate notwithstanding, it falls to Suu Kyi to protect the Rohingya residents of her country. If recognising them as full citizens is, for political reasons, not yet practical, she should at the very least shield them from prejudice and harm. Quelling the violent instincts now arising among the Rohingya will only be possible if they are treated justly and the rule of law is applied equally in Rakhine. The government now needs their support if it is to stop an embryonic insurrection.