The Muslim Rohingyas of Myanmar is one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s role deserves more attention, argues journalist Steve Shaw.
When Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a majority win in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years, it was hailed as a landmark result and a huge step towards democracy. The NLD’s 2015 victory was expected to bring sweeping changes to a country that had suffered through decades of civil war and human rights abuses under a military government.
But two major uncertainties loomed over the party and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader. First, questions were quickly raised over how the new government could bring peace and stability while the military continued to operate in a political role. Second, it was unclear where the new government stood with regards to the minority Rohingya population, dubbed the most persecuted ethnic group in the world by the UN.
Both of these uncertainties were put to the test when a small Islamist militant group known as Harakah al-Yaqin in October 2016 attacked police outposts in the Rohingya-majority Rakhine State, near Myanmar’s northwestern border with Bangladesh, killing several policemen.
Instead of launching an investigation into the attacks, a ‘clearance operation’ was launched in Rakhine state and security forces, led by the military, were deployed. Human rights groups, aid agencies and journalists were all shut out from Rakhine’s Maungdaw district.
In the months that followed, Rohingya people began fleeing to Bangladesh in their thousands, each of them arriving with their own harrowing story of violence, atrocities, rape. A senior UN official told the BBC at the time that Myanmar appeared to be, “seeking the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority from its territory”.
“The situation has taken a dramatic turn for the worse for the Rohingya in the north,” Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights Group, told The New Republic. “We were talking with a group of people today, conducting interviews. In a group of nine or 10, every single one had witnessed family members being killed, every single one coming from different villages.”
The world soon looked to Aung San Suu Kyi but Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader kept quiet even after more than a dozen of her fellow Nobel Laureates published an open letter warning that “ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” were being perpetrated.
The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable – what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her.”
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein , UN high commissioner for human rights
Until today nearly 75,000 people from the persecuted minority have fled to Bangladesh but authorities are planning to relocate them to an island which is almost completely uninhabitable as regular flooding makes it impossible to grow crops or vegetation. In the meantime, the refugees are living in squalid conditions in camps where they are at risk of further abuses, such as child labour, sexual abuse and trafficking.
A history of persecution
Ms. Suu Kyi has chosen to reject a decision by the UN’s human rights council to investigate the allegations of crimes in Rakhine State, saying she did not agree with the allegations.
“Aung San Suu Kyi does not control the military or security services so in that regard is not responsible for the latest round of human rights violations which began in October,” says Mark Farmaner of the UK rights group Burma UK. “But she does have moral authority and could have used that to bring domestc and international pressure to bear on the military to halt their abuses.”
Divisions between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority have existed in the country for many decades. Some of the most damaging measures came in the 1980s, starting with the passing of a law in 1982 which revoked the Rohingyas’ citizenship.
The government argued this was justified because the Muslim minority are illegal immigrants who only came to the country at the beginning of the British occupation of Rakhine State in 1823. Evidence points to Rohingya families settling in the region before that date.
Once they had been deemed stateless and unwanted by their own country, the government was able to remove some of their most basic civil entitlements, including the right to education, healthcare, employment and land ownership.
In 1988, the military government adopted a later leaked document known as the Rohingya Extermination Plan. In 11 points it laid out a blueprint for the persecution and eventual destruction of the Muslim population while attracting as little international attention as possible. “Mass killing of the Muslim is to be avoided in order not to invite the attention of the Muslim countries,” the document read.
Land grabs and geopolitics
A civilian-led democracy has allowed the generals to become business owners with financial stakes in the domestic violence. Many of them are now linked with some of the largest businesses that exploit the country’s abundance of natural resources, including gems, industrial minerals, oil and offshore natural gas reserves.
Renowned Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen believes that business and economic development has become the new driving force behind the violence. A turning point, she says, was an outbreak of violence in Rakhine in 2012.
“The military went in and killed, but perhaps most significantly they also forced all of the Rohingya out of particular areas, off of their land and into camps,” she told The World Weekly. “And that pattern has multiplied – it is not just killing, it is removing them completely from their land and burning down the villages.” The main problem, she adds, is that the rest of the country has been over-exploited, leaving land scarce.
Illegal land seizures, or land grabs, are seen as one of the most prevalent human rights abuses against the Rohingya, as well as other ethnic groups in Myanmar. Those who refuse to leave their land when ordered may face being charged with criminal trespass and there have been accounts of entire villages being burnt to the ground as punishment.
Rakhine’s value is diplomatic as well as economic. A large section of the state was recently designated as the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone, a Chinese-Myanma joint venture that aims to increase trade and investment and create jobs.
It is estimated that nearly 40 villages and more than 200,000 people will need to be relocated for the construction of a wide range of industrial projects, including a new port, the expansion of an airport and oil refineries.
The US has fully backed the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi and in the past few years strengthened its strategic and trading relationship with Myanmar.
In September, just one month before Rakhine descended into brutal violence, then-President Barack Obama announced that he was lifting longstanding trade sanctions, a move met with numerous objections from rights groups which said it came too soon.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, thinks sanctions have been crucial in pressing the military to end abuses and transfer power to civilians, and should not be fully lifted “until the democratic transition is irreversible”. But international pressure is likely to lessen further under President Donald Trump, who has shown little interest in advancing rights abroad.
For many though the key to ending the Rohingya plight lies closer to home.
In her 1991 essay ‘Freedom from fear’ Ms. Suu Kyi wrote: “Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.”