If a state can’t guarantee its citizens full protection of their human rights, can we deem this country democratic? If a leader can’t fulfill her promises to the people, can we deem her successful?
Finding an answer to these problems is a challenge that Myanmar is currently facing head-on. While many are celebrating the relative success of the recent democratic election and the landslide victory of revered NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, many overlook the perpetually worsening ongoing genocide perpetuated against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.
Starting with the crackdown on the Rohingya people in 2016 that was carried out by the police and armed forces, the persecution of the Rohingya has become an urgent international topic of concern. There have been many assumptions about the widespread hostility towards the Rohingya within Myanmar, the most prominent one being related to their religion. The Rohingya within Myanmar follow Islam while Buddhism plays an extremely important role amongst the Bamar majority, often being regarded as a fundamental element of the national identity. Other than the low levels of freedom of religion and strong anti-Rohingya sentiment, the rigid hierarchies of race, color, religion and class within Myanmar cast out the Rohingya population, blocking their way out of the struggle. Now the persecution has escalated into an ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. The Myanmar government has deprived Rohingya peoples’ citizenship by claiming that they are “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”, evicting them out of Myanmar and denying their right to education and political participation.
Even worse, there is clear evidence of Myanmar army-perpetrated extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, infanticides, and other serious human rights violations towards the Rohingya in Myanmar. Thousands of Rohingya have been forced to flee to Bangladesh in search of asylum. Refugee camps are severely overcrowded, plagued by sanitation issues and an overall lack of resources. Meanwhile, those who don’t have the chance to escape continue to face near unliveable conditions. The Myanmar government has further blocked the access of international aid to those stuck in Internal Displacement Camps in Myanmar, leaving many Rohingya people to struggle in desperation.
It is appalling that the “democratic” pioneer of the country and the Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, refuses to act on this issue. According to her statement, what the Myanmar government is doing is “not ethnic cleaning” because “Buddhists have been subjected to violence” and their reaction is “based on fear”. Overflowing accusations from the West seem to bother her, as she said “too much attention makes it difficult for the government to work out a peaceful solution”, additionally calling on the UN International Court of Justice to “not aggravate the ongoing conflict.”
Are Aung San Suu Kyi’s words credible? Her justification for the violence that Buddhists are facing directs our attention to another important actor in this incident — the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as Harakat al-Yageen. They claim to be a secular organization, fighting on behalf of the Rohingya living in Rakhine for “freedom of movement, a right to basic education and health care, and citizenship.” They insist that they receive secret training to teach vulnerable Rohingya to protect themselves, and that their fighters don’t have sophisticated weapons. In general, ARSA portray themselves as a group of Rohingya rising up to defend their people from the atrocities of the state.
However, the true background and motive of ARSA are much more complicated than their explanation. International Crisis Group suggests that ARSA is “led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics.” Besides, while most of their weapons are homemade, there is sufficient evidence that they receive help “from veterans of other conflicts, including people in Afghanistan.” An interview conducted by Al Jazeera suggests that ARSA is even planning to begin carrying out suicide bombing missions. This evidence points to their possible connection to Islamist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Their massacre of other minority groups in Rakhine serves as proof of their acts of terrorism. As reported by Amnesty International, ARSA fighters spread fear amongst other ethnic communities, especially Hindus, through the brutality of massacres. In this unlawful killing, they rape women, loot property, and force Hindu people to convert to Islam. While there are thousands of articles online covering the Rohingya genocide, events like these tend to be underreported.
Regardless, ARSA’s extreme behaviour is certainly not an excuse for the massive resentment in Myanmar towards the Rohingya. Furthermore, ARSA is hardly representative of Rohingya sentiment, which even worsens the misleading nature of government’s efforts to excuse the mistreatment of Rohingya people. Aung San Suu Kyi’s explanation for the lack of action to address this issue is weak in comparison to her resolution to “protect human rights”, clearly an attempt to gain public support during her campaign. She operates increasingly like a crafty politician rather than a selfless activist, intentionally ignoring the Rohingya’s voices in an effort to please the majority of the voters — the nationalist Bamar who hold firm prejudice against Muslim Rohingya. In November 2017, a year after the first crackdown on Rohingya civilians, Aung San Suu Kyi finally made her first visit to Rakhine. This visit, however, was “purely symbolic”, per the BBC. Suu Kyi did nothing to address the local Rohingya people’s insecurity and anxieties, only asking them to “trust the government”. Instead, Suu Kyi seems to be laser-focused on investment in the region, this evidenced by her accompaniment on her 2017 trip by one of the wealthiest tycoons in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s indifferent attitude may also be influenced by support from China and India. These two countries have publicly supported the Myanmar government on the Rohingya issue. China used its veto power to protect Myanmar from being sanctioned by The United Nations Security Council, using the conflict as an opportunity to bring Myanmar “into its orbit of influence”. The underlying intentions are clear. According to Asia Times, because Myanmar connects India to Southeast Asia, they are in a position to help India eliminate threats to national security. Despite the pressure from many western countries, China and India’s support offers the Myanmar government excuses to justify its behaviour, protecting it from being held responsible in dealing with the Rohingya issue.
By dodging her entrusted responsibility to protect innocent Rohingya civilians, Aung San Suu Kyi renders her promise to protect human rights a falsehood. While the brutal killing of Hindus and other chaos created by ARSA are condemnable and should not be ignored by the world, what many don’t see are the thousands of Rohingya who have lost their lives and homes in this endless battle, clear victims of crimes against humanity.
Edited by Zachary Beresin
Photo credits:” May 2014: Burma’s Rohingya” by United to End Genocide Published January 1, 2000. This work was sourced under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license. No changes were made.