This past week news emerged that Myanmar would refuse to issue visas for members of a UN-mandated fact-finding mission investigating allegations of human-rights violations. Although the mission is looking into allegations of crimes against humanity in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states, it has a strong focus on recent allegations of severe and widespread abuses against the ethnic Rohingya inside Rakhine state.
The Rohingya are a long-oppressed Muslim minority who are not considered citizens by Myanmar. The country’s democratic icon, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, said she disapproved of the fact-finding mission because she did not believe it could meet the needs of the region and that it would deepen tensions.
Where Suu Kyi sees the status quo as acceptable and even preferable, the truth is that it is not only unsustainable for Myanmar, but also costly and dangerous for the entire region. With conflict areas remaining volatile, an overwhelming number of people displaced and the possibility of terrorist networks seeking to exploit the situation, it is utterly irresponsible to both Myanmar and the greater region to leave the situation unaddressed, unresolved and likely to turn into greater conflict while there is an opportunity for resolution, accountability and reconciliation readily available.
The fact-finding mission, established by a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution and adopted without a vote on March 24, has recently had its members announced by the president of the UN General Assembly. Since then, Suu Kyi and other senior Myanmar government officials have indicated that the UN mission would not be welcome.
The mission is largely in response to the Myanmar army’s clearance operation against an armed group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, who were responsible for an attack on police posts on October 9 last year in Rakhine state. The clearance operation was conducted by the security forces and harshly targeted civilians in a way that can be viewed as collective punishment.
However, the government has denied accusations of human-rights violations and rejected the UN-mandated fact-finding mission. As Rakhine state remains on the brink of further conflict that could easily result in mass suffering and displacement, it must be understood that the UN mission, if allowed full access, might truly be one of the best and only tools to allow peace and reconciliation inside Myanmar, and prevent greater crises from further spilling over the borders into the region.
After the attacks on October 9, the government has locked down much of northern Rakhine state. Media and international aid agencies have had their access to much of this area blocked or severely limited. People who had not fled the crackdown faced widespread malnourishment and were at serious risk of mass starvation during much of late 2016 and early 2017.
Cutting off aid with the intention of harming the civilian population is a tactic the military has previously deployed, called the “four cuts strategy”. This strategy, first used against ethnic Karen, starves, displaces, tortures and abuses the general population with the intention of turning them against militant groups.
Many Rohingya people who escaped to Bangladesh gave accounts of having to flee after the military and police destroyed food rations in their villages. Several Rohingya women described horrific accounts of being gang-raped. Multiple witnesses described seeing small children thrown into fires and burned alive.
Similarly, in northern Myanmar, ethnic Shan and Kachin have faced assaults by the army against the local militant groups that has involved allegations of gang rape, children being kidnapped to serve as frontline porters for the military, civilians being shot indiscriminately, and a massive blockade against all regions under the control of rebel groups, where villagers and displaced people in remote regions now have almost no access to food or medicine. These blockades, while drawing less media attention, are undoubtedly the most dangerous weapon deployed by the Myanmar military, and cause far more death and suffering than direct violence does.
During the clearance operation in Rakhine state, Suu Kyi defended the military and their mission, stressing the importance of rule of law. Her words were extremely disappointing from a woman who had been under house arrest for 15 years by the same military. She, more than most, knows their cruelty, and for the minorities who supported her when she needed them there is a deep hurt when she fails to support them every time they need her.
Suu Kyi’s efforts in the conflict made wartime rape easier, justified heinous abuses against civilians and left a vulnerable people forsaken in a land that hates them. The Ministry of Information, which was appointed by Suu Kyi, claimed that the accusations of rape and torture recorded by international rights organizations were fabricated.
This is the same Suu Kyi who, during the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2011, said, “Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights.”
This is the Suu Kyi we knew, and the one we hope will show up, but we do not see her any longer.
Previously Myanmar formed its own commission to investigate the allegations of human-rights abuses in Rakhine state, which was widely seen as an effort to whitewash crimes against humanity and as the government’s inability and unwillingness to investigate itself seriously. Often this commission is presented as evidence that Myanmar is taking the situation in Rakhine seriously, but it seems far more evident that its purpose was to exonerate the security forces and attempt to reduce criticism from the international community without having to make any serious changes in policy toward minorities or practices within the security forces.
Beyond this, the Rohingya crisis is no longer an internal issue that affects Myanmar alone, but has become a broader regional issue for two significant reasons: the refugee crisis and the threat to regional security.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Myanmar now is the eighth-largest contributor to the world’s refugee population. As the violence increases in Rakhine state, so too do the number of refugees forced to flee to Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand.
The country’s Muslim-majority neighbors are already facing extremism and their security forces are at times inundated with complicated extremist networks and threats. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have faced threats from domestic groups and individuals affiliated with ISIS, and Indonesia has previously thwarted attempted terrorist attacks that had been motivated by the situation in Rakhine state. These problems have forced Malaysia and Indonesia to break a core principle of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of non-interference into other member states’ internal matters.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was the first leader to come out in protest against the Myanmar government for the persecution against the Rohingya when he issued statements on the situation, and took part in rallies and aid delivery to the Rohingya. More recently Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said his country would be looking into humanitarian and diplomatic responses to Myanmar’s denial of visas for those working on the UN fact-finding mission.
The Indonesian government adopted a milder approach, attempting to ease the new Myanmar government into understanding.
These approaches, however, need benchmarks that can measure tangible ongoing improvements, rather than sporadic praise every time Myanmar allows aid to be delivered to populations it has intentionally starved. Progress can be measured by specific actions the Myanmar government should be taking, such as unfettered access for aid to affected areas, free access by the press, and freedom of movement for the Rohingya population who have been severely restricted.
The current efforts have not yielded any of these improvements, despite their being basic, fundamental human rights. It is with this in mind that we should consider the UN-mandated fact-finding mission as crucial for uncovering the truth of the events that took place, holding those responsible accountable, and creating conditions that will allow fundamental human rights to be universal and unquestioned.
If Suu Kyi believes the UN mission will fail, what alternative does she think will succeed? If the UN will inflame tensions, what effect does she believe leaving legitimate grievances of a brutalized civilian population unaddressed will create? Her words seem misleading, in that her objective may be more accurately described as offering a blanket denial to security forces while upholding the status quo and the Islamophobia, tension and potential for escalation therein.
Here we find the Nobel laureate deflecting accusations of crimes against humanity with blanket denials and avoidance when leadership, foresight and courage are needed.
The international community, especially the major world powers and Myanmar’s neighbors, need to adopt an effective strategy to stop the persecution of minorities in Myanmar and to allow the fact-finding mission to proceed without restrictions. These countries should consider having a strategy not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in the best interest of regional stability.
While pressure has increased, it has plainly not yet been sufficient to pave the way for mechanisms like the UN fact-finding mission, which would offer a true chance for peace and reconciliation. Alternatively, the further away peace appears, the more vulnerable populations will be to radicalization, which will ignite and spread the currently isolated conflict deeper and deeper into the surrounding region through exploitation by outside groups.
Suu Kyi faces a choice between emerging once again as a true leader or cowering from the crisis and appeasing powers that have brutalized civilians. As the cries to act grow louder, and the international community increases pressure, the greatest hope for Myanmar and the region is that she will finally hear them.