CRISIS HAS again descended upon one of the most persecuted peoples in the world. The Rohingya Muslims of Burma, long repressed by the authorities, are at the epicenter of a new spasm of violence in Burma’s northwestern Rakhine state, sparked by an attack on Burmese police and security forces last month and followed by a scorched-earth crackdown by the military. Burma’s champion of democracy and de facto leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, must step in to make sure alleged human rights abuses are fully investigated and the military response does not turn into a fresh wave of mass brutality.
On Oct. 9, Rohingya militants struck in the northern part of Rakhine state at three posts near the border with Bangladesh, killing nine police officers. Eight insurgents were also killed. Since the attack, soldiers have poured into the area and closed it off so that independent journalists and human rights monitors cannot verify what occurred. But there have been reports of killings of unarmed Rohingya men and rapes of Rohingya women as well as beatings of Rohingya held in detention. Satellite photographs show widespread destruction in villages near the town of Maungdaw. Human Rights Watch identified 1,250 burned buildings in five villages, but the government denies carrying out a campaign of systematic annihilation.
More than 100,000 Rohingya have been stuck in camps in southern Rakhine state since a deadly wave of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. In recent years, many desperate Rohingya risked their lives on rickety ships, fleeing to seek work elsewhere. Overall, the population has been deliberately and often cruelly marginalized in Buddhist-majority Burma, also known as Myanmar. The previous government sought to discriminate against them, excluding Rohingya from a census and invalidating their identification cards, among other measures.
The motivation of the armed attackers on Oct. 9 is unknown. By some reports, they may have belonged to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, a militant group active in the 1980s and 1990s that was thought to be defunct. Another explanation is that the attackers were reacting to harsh plans by the state to raze a large number of structures — including schools and homes — saying they were built illegally. Either way, Rohingya are right to fear events that could quickly spiral into much wider repression at the hands of the military, which retains considerable clout in Burma’s power structure.
The plight of the Rohingya has long been a blind spot for Aung San Suu Kyi. In the latest crisis, she has suggested that complaints be taken to an advisory commission on Rakhine state created this year and led by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan. This is not enough. She should instruct that a full investigation be conducted by the national government, that the conflict zone be opened to independent journalists and human rights monitors, and that the military avoid indiscriminate killing and punishment. Burma’s road to freeing itself from the past means facing directly the suffering of the Rohingya.