Ethnic violence in Myanmar has now displaced more than 400,000 members of the Rohingya minority and the ongoing military crackdown on the group has been described by UN High Commissioner Zeid Raʼad al-Hussein as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” In the face of mounting criticism Aung San Suu Kyi has downplayed international concerns about the crisis, saying they are fuelled by “huge iceberg of misinformation” that serves the interests of terrorists. An official statement has also claimed that her government has “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible”.
Despite their presence in Burma – the former name of Myanmar – for decades, the Rohingya have remained a stateless community with severely limited rights within the country. They have never been allowed to move freely, nor enjoyed access to regular employment. In June 2012, clashes between local Buddhists and Muslims – believed to be Rohingya – left 200 people dead in Rakhine state. Ever since, periodic ethnic violence destroyed entire neighbourhoods and left the Rohingya population susceptible to further reprisals.
A 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report subtitled ‘Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan [Rakhine] State’ found that “Burmese officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged ethnic Arakanese backed by state security forces to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population.” HRW added that “government authorities destroyed mosques, conducted violent mass arrests, and blocked aid to displaced Muslims.” It concluded that “all of the state security forces” were “implicated in failing to prevent atrocities or directly participating in them” and it noted that satellite images “from just 5 of the 13 townships that experienced violence” indicated “27 unique zones of destruction, including the destruction of 4,862 structures covering 348 acres of mostly Muslim-owned residential property.” The current atrocities are the consummation of this carefully coordinated violence.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s record on the Rohingya does not bear scrutiny. In a BBC interview this April, she said: “I don’t think ethnic cleansing is going on; ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what’s happening.” But it is impossible to imagine what other term would adequately cover the activities documented by international human rights monitors. A “flash report” published by the UN in February, based on interviews with Rohingyas who have fled Myanmar since October 2016, contains the following subheadings: “Death due to random firing; Death due to shooting at close range; Death due to stabbing by knife ; Death by burning; Beating to death; Killings of children; Enforced disappearance; Rape and other forms of sexual violence; Gang rape and rape by an individual; Sexual violence other than rape; Physical assault including torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; Beatings and death threats.”
Not only has Ms Suu Kyi blamed the crisis, disingenuously, on terrorist actions, her government has both passively tolerated and actively participated in the violence against the Rohingya. It has compounded these actions by withholding or obstructing aid to victims, while accusing aid workers of helping “terrorists.” Although the military responsible for the worst violence does not answer directly to Suu Kyi, she has repeatedly declined opportunities to speak out against the ongoing atrocities, despite heartfelt appeals to do so from Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and dozens of her longtime supporters. In light of this silence it is hardly surprising that a petition to strip her of her Nobel Peace Prize is now close to obtaining half a million signatures. Meanwhile, the Rohingya who have managed to escape the violence in Myanmar now find themselves crammed into overwhelmed refugee camps in Bangladesh. The New York Times cites UN estimates that two-thirds of the refugees are women and girls and up to 230,000 are children who are in danger of human trafficking, sexual abuse, child labour and child marriage.
In the 2012 acceptance speech for the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize awarded while she was still under house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi spoke about refugees she had recently met in Thailand. “Can we afford to indulge in compassion fatigue?” she asked, “Is the cost of meeting the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be consequent on turning an indifferent, if not a blind, eye on their suffering? I appeal to donors the world over to fulfil the needs of these people who are in search, often it must seem to them a vain search, of refuge.” That she should have become the one to watch, with something worse than indifference, the prolonged mistreatment of a group that the UN has described as “the world’s most persecuted minority” is a shocking irony for this iconic activist, and one that will tarnish her legacy irreparably.