Silence from Nobel Laureate and defacto leader of Myanmar on Rohingya issue is hard to justify. It’s also dangerous, writes Fiona MacGregor.
The brutality recounted in a recent UN report on those fleeing Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state into Bangladesh shocked even those who have closely followed rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority in recent years.
The descriptions of babies’ being killed with knives, multiple gang rapes, elderly people being burned alive, torture and killings that the UN said likely amounted to crimes against humanity by Myanmar’s security forces were profoundly distressing to read and provoked international outrage. Hundreds of people are thought to have been killed according to the 3 February report by UN OHCHR, which was based mainly on the testimonies of over 200 of the estimated 70,000 people who fled over the border into Bangladesh in the previous four months.
Yet Myanmar’s Nobel laureate and de facto leader of the government Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to make a public statement on the shocking findings, not only raising question about her relationship with the military and commitment to human rights, but what kind of future she is creating for the country.
The atrocities are alleged to have taken part during “clearance operations” as the military hunted those responsible for fatal attacks on border police groups in northern Rakhine on October 9 2016 claimed by a new insurgent group Harakah al-Yakin which said it stands for Rohingya rights. The incident is being treated in Myanmar as a “terrorist attack”. Despite international calls for her direct intervention, Myanmar’s Nobel laureate and de facto leader of the civilian government has no mandate to stop the country’s powerful military carrying out operations in the way it wants.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad told Reuters that when he spoke to state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after she read the UN OHCHR report, she “seemed to be genuinely moved”. But, the UN report was hardly the first account of such abuses to emerge.
Not only had Aung San Suu Kyi refused to publically raise concerns over earlier allegations, but she allowed her own representatives to actively deny them and seek to discredit those, including this writer, other media and rights campaigners, who reported on them. Those denials have been widely accepted by a Myanmar public long conditioned to despise the mainly stateless Muslim Rohingya minority.
In apparently choosing to believe military sources over the international community and in helping to disseminate the generals’ message among the Myanmar public, Aung San Suu Kyi further damaged the already fragile trust in Myanmar regarding foreign involvement in anything to do with Rakhine and the Rohingya issue. Although she has not personally spoken out publically about the report’s contents, Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman described the allegations as “extremely disturbing” and vowed they would be investigated.
However it is unlikely that the Myanmar government’s own investigation – led by the military-backed vice president Myint Swe– will be considered impartial by significant international voices accusing the security forces of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. It can be expected we will see a limited number of “show cases” — small scale action against relatively low level security personnel as has happened in a small number of more high profile incidents involving rights abuses by the military since reforms began. But constitutionally enshrined impunity for the military means that is likely to be as far as “justice” goes if Myanmar is left to deal with this on its own.
On 21 February following the announcement the government investigation had been completed, the commission’s secretary, Zaw Mying Pe was reported by Radio Free Asia to have said the group’s findings differed from those described in the UN report. How to negotiate a way out of the considerable disparity in findings between the international and national investigations will be the most high profile challenge of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership so far.
Those who seek to discredit the UN and other international rights reports point to a number of false or exaggerated claims on social media about Rohingya rights atrocities in an attempt to imply all allegations of abuse are “fake”. Meanwhile those seeking to verify many of the accounts face a near impossible task. Northern Rakhine has been cut off to almost all outside observers by the military since operations began.
It has become a case of ‘her word versus his’. The UN and other rights organisations cite the testimonies of alleged victims and witnesses who have reached the relative safety of Bangladesh. Though medical evidence gathered there also supports at least some claims violations have occurred. In return, Myanmar’s authorities use denials of atrocities made by people interviewed by powerful and high ranking government figures in their home villages where security personnel are still active to suggest alleged victims have lied.
Both Aung San Suu Kyi’s advisors and those leading the international push for an independent investigation have an immensely sensitive task on their hands in dealing with this situation. That should not be allowed to distract from the fact that there are tens of thousands of people suffering right now, who need proper aid and assistance, their human rights and dignity respected, and access to justice.
Unfortunately, there is a high risk that is exactly what will happen. As the stalemate between the accusers and deniers continues, the victims are very unlikely get the help they need so urgently. That is tragic. It is also dangerous. The longer people are left to suffer and their voices ignored in Myanmar, the more vulnerable they will be to those who encourage them to believe violent insurgency is the best way out of their predicament.
If Aung San Suu Kyi’s interest in human rights is limited, as some have suggest, she should also consider finding a way to resolve things expedient in terms of her wider national goals. If Harakah al-Yaqin become’s a more powerful threat, it will play directly into the hands of those who for various reasons might wish to destabilise the country and undermine her authority.
However, she is not without options if she is willing to choose them. Relying on the idea that development alone will somehow sort it all out in Rakhine is unrealistic. If Aung San Suu Kyi is serious about finding long-term solutions, she needs to look at immediate and direct action to address the fear and hatred that has been allowed to germinate throughout the country.
Her silence is hard to justify. Myanmar needs a strong leader who guides people with meaningful words and actions – not just symbolism and slogans.
Even if there is little by way of demand from the Myanmar public for her to stand up for human rights in relation to the Rohingya, she is letting all the people down as democratic citizens by allowing them to be misled about what has been occurring in Rakhine. It will be very difficult for her, culturally and politically, to acknowledge her government may have got things drastically wrong in its denials of abuses. But she still has room to change the atmosphere going forward.
It is a common trope that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot speak out on the Rohingya issue because to do so will lost her too much popularity in Myanmar and/or risk the wrath of the military and or nationalist hardliners. But this view ignores the immense sway her word has over the vast majority of people in the Bamar heartlands.
The power of those feared hardliners, particularly in the form of the notorious monk-led Ma Ba Tha, dramatically dissipated after the election when authorities chose to clamp down on them showing the group did not have the influence it claimed. Aung San Suu Kyi, however, possesses an influence so powerful it almost appears divine – if she chooses to use it.
It is lamentable that she did not do so before now, but it is not too late for her to assume the role of “Mother Suu” and guide her people in the principles of compassion, tolerance and Metta that are now so desperately needed in Myanmar. To do so she will also have to start engaging more with the press – nationally, and internationally.
She has embroiled the national media in disseminating a message of blanket denials that increasingly appears to be inaccurate. In addition, the ever-present threat of the telecommunications act means that anyone who does dare to criticize the military or civilian government online faces the risk of criminal proceedings and imprisonment: Hardly a sign of democratic progress. It is either disingenuous or shows a deep misunderstanding of effective media relations to accuse foreign media of painting a one-sided view of Myanmar that stirs up resentment in-country, while having no formal working mechanism in place that allows journalists to reliably access key figures for timely responses.
Resolving the fact that her relationship with the international media is at an all-time low is not merely a matter of meeting the demands of entitled foreign journalists – it is a case of protecting her own power and the rights of her people. Her ability to act as a respected figurehead for Myanmar on the international stage is one of her trump cards with the generals. She may need to keep cordial relations with the military, but they in turn still need her to play her role as they seek to secure Myanmar’s place on the international stage. If she loses her good reputation abroad — something that is already beginning to happen — her political capital with the military, and her power, will be significantly diminished.
But, there is an even greater risk. She was complicit in a creating a situation in which those, particularly foreigners, who raised the issue of alleged rights abuses were depicted as anti-Myanmar.
If she allows that misconception to continue and does not find a way to reverse the burgeoning mistrust of the international community and media, while supporting a free press internally, she risks setting Myanmar back on a path to isolation and ignorance in which its citizens are kept in the dark over the activities of its military and government: A country where gross rights abuses are perpetrated without challenge.
During all these years under house arrest, that was surely not what she imagined would be her legacy.
Fiona MacGregor is a journalist based in Myanmar for the last four years, and long-time observer of Myanmar and Southeast Asia.