By Tom Shacklock (First appeared in Current Affairs, Issue 25 of January 2018)
Rakhine State, a region in western Myanmar, is facing a serious humanitarian crisis. The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in the region, denied citizenship by Myanmar’s government, have been the victims of what has been deemed as ethnic cleansing and genocide by the international community. Tensions between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority are deep-rooted in this region, though it is since 2016 that the persecutions have escalated. This was provoked by an insurgent attack from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in October 2016 on Myanmar’s army, aggravated itself by the ongoing persecution. In response to these attacks, Muslim civilians of Rakhine state have become targets for rape, massacre, and burnt homes and villages, leading them to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in an unprecedented migration crisis. This already-escalating crisis became more severe 25th August 2017, when an exodus of an estimated ½ million Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh began.
Where’s the government?
Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto leader of Myanmar, became 1st State Counsellor of Myanmar in April 2016, in the government led by National League for Democracy. The constitution prevented her becoming President because her children have British citizenship, but, in practice, she exerts as much power as the official President Htin Kyaw. Suu Kyi’s political success follows 21 years of house arrest under the military dictatorship, during which her determination to resist her prisoners led to her eventual release and the democratisation of Myanmar in 2010. She had captured the support and sympathy of the international community for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and losing her husband to cancer in Britain 1999 while they were isolated from one another. When she assumed power in 2016, hopes were high for her to bring real change to Myanmar. The Burmese people could now enjoy democracy after decades of oppression. Yet, oppression has not been alleviated for the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, and Suu Kyi has frequently denied accusations of ethnic cleansing due of some attacks towards Buddhist civilians. The world now looks down on her with sheer disappointment.
Can we still give Suu Kyi a chance?
Democratisation has not actually been fully established in Myanmar. The National League for Democracy still shares power with the military, which is accused of being the cause of the Rohingya’s oppression. While many criticise Suu Kyi of completely neglecting the Muslim minority, others simply say she is weak for not standing up to the military. Given the limits that the military have placed on her power, it seems arguable that criticisms of her have been misdirected. However, she exposed potentially deep-rooted anti-Muslim sentiment when challenged by BBC’s Mishal Husain in 2016, caught saying, ‘Nobody told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.’ Overall, the Myanmar government has been opaque on its attitudes towards the Rohingya and information on events in Rakhine State, creating uncertainty around their handling of the crisis.
It seems that, while world leaders voice their concerns across the globe, they become more timid when visiting Myanmar. Before his visit in September, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was criticised for not calling on Suu Kyi to end the ethnic cleansing without complimenting her as an ‘inspiring’ figure. During his visit, he attracted more attention for reading an insensitive Kipling poem than for discussing persecutions in Rakhine State. Pope Francis has also, during his visit in November, failed to use the term ‘Rohingya’ in a speech on refugees from Rakhine State. This crisis is proving to be very sensitive and difficult for political figures globally, and Myanmar’s military will continue to exploit that.