Aung San Suu Kyi has been tasked with steering the country away from military rule—but on her watch minority communities face appalling violence, while the UN is barred from interveningby Francis Wade / August 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
In January this year the United Nations dispatched a team of investigators to the southeastern tip of Bangladesh, close to where the Naf River marks the border with Myanmar. Over the three months prior, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims had crossed that river from Myanmar and holed up in camps and villages around the town of Teknaf. They left behind them razed villages and family members too sick or maimed to leave, and they told the investigators of a litany of crimes allegedly committed by Myanmar troops as they swept through northern Rakhine State—of the torching of houses, the gang-rape of women and the execution of children by soldiers seemingly unbridled by the laws governing armed combat.
But eight months on, it is the UN that has become the target of ire from the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government, and not the military. The accounts given to the UN by escapees begin in October last year, when the army had ordered a “clearance operation” aimed at weeding out perpetrators of an attack on a police outpost by members of a Rohingya armed group. The government asserted that soldiers deployed there had acted “with restraint,” but the UN thought otherwise. This hadn’t been a precision operation; rather, by the year’s end, upwards of 65,000 Rohingya—a stateless minority that populates western Myanmar—had fled apparently indiscriminate beatings and killings, jailings and disappearances. The UN then warned that what had occurred in that corner of Myanmar could amount to crimes against humanity.
Since coming to office in April last year, Myanmar’s National League for Democracy has evinced a hostility towards its critics that has taken many by surprise. Rather than engage with concerns about the conduct of troops, it has instead served as something of a PR mechanism for the army, steadfastly rejecting allegations of abuse and sending a message to external parties that the military’s behaviour in Rakhine State—and in other sights of conflict elsewhere in the country—is within the bounds of law. A government-formed inquiry into the events of late last year in northern Rakhine State returned with its findings in early August. Not only were the UN’s claims of abuse by troops groundless, it said, but were part of a “smear campaign by external forces” that sought to exaggerate the death toll and to tarnish the country’s image abroad. The UN’s own efforts to send a team to Myanmar to independently investigate had been thwarted by the government, who in June denied them visas. In short, the world was told, this is no business of yours.
“Quiet, structural violence eats away at the Rohingya community”
From time to time, when violence flares or when global leaders turn their attention to Myanmar, the situation in Rakhine State makes it onto the news agenda. For the most part, however, it doesn’t, and that feeds a sense that the periodic bouts of bloodletting upset an otherwise manageable state of calm. Yet what persists regardless of the episodes of unrest—and indeed is reinforced by them—is the quiet, structural violence that, year by year, eats away at the Rohingya community. With each flare-up, state-designed measures to limit the movement of Rohingya—who number around one million and whom many in the country believe to be illegal Bengali immigrants bent on Islamising the country—are tightened. Access to hospitals, even for life-saving treatment, is bedevilled by very deliberate delays and refusals. The only adequately-equipped hospital that will take Muslims is in the state capital of Sittwe, but once there, they are placed in wards separate from Buddhists, and are often escorted to and from their zones of confinement—displacement camps, villages or barricaded ghettos—by police.
But local hostility isn’t reserved solely for the Rohingya. Not only has the government actively sought to undermine the UN’s credibility—in stark contrast to the days when Suu Kyi encouraged UN engagement in Myanmar’s troubled affairs—but the agency has also become the target of accusations by Rakhine Buddhists that carry even more sinister implications: that its aid is now going to the same militant outfit that carried out the October 2016 attack, and which may be behind the killing of six Buddhist civilians in early August.
The government knows that this kind of misinformation, circulated amid communal tensions so razor-sharp that mass violence is never far away, bears potentially lethal consequences for both aid workers and the communities they administer. The UN knows this too. Its energy should be directed towards tackling the myriad crises the state’s population faces as a result of violence and neglect, not least recent reports that more than 80,000 children are malnourished and in greater need of the assistance that it provides. Instead, it was forced to issue a warning to staff last week that continued “rumor and misinformation” about the agency’s aid efforts there presaged the “increased likelihood of civil unrest” directed at it.
Suu Kyi is now well into her second year as de facto leader, tasked with steering the country away from the divisive politics of military rule, when ethnic and religious identities were manipulated and cultural differences sharpened into volatile divides. But, if anything, the transition has given greater space for expressions of group hatred, helped along by the goading of nationalist politicians and monks. The government’s staunch defence of the military and its disparagement of the UN’s findings serves to feed grassroots animosity towards an agency, and international actors more broadly, whose freedom Suu Kyi had once urged be used “to promote ours.”
As the transition advances, the door for international humanitarian engagement in Myanmar appears to be closing. When a wave of violence between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in Rakhine State in 2012, a letter was circulated around Sittwe warning that aid groups supplying assistance to Rohingya had “watered poisonous plants.” Five years on, that sentiment remains powerful. It underpins a new understanding among nationalists, even in the pro-democracy camp, of the intentions of the international community: it is a hindrance to a transition that, it now seems, seeks to curtail not only the military’s political power but also that of communities, like the stateless Rohingya, considered a threat to the national community.
Francis Wade is the author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (Zed Books, 2017). Available here