Following decades of oppression, on Aug. 25, insurgents of the Muslim Rohingya minority attacked Myanmar police at 30 of their posts across Rakhine state under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which emerged during the past year and is funded from Saudi Arabia. The attacks unleashed a horrific response from the military and forced about 420,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
The Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner, who has been writing about Burma/Myanmar and Asia for nearly four decades, wrote later in the Asia Times:
“The simultaneous attacks on August 25 required meticulous planning. In the months before … as many as 50 people, Muslims as well as Buddhists suspected of serving as government informants, had their throats slit or were hacked to death in order to deprive the Myanmar military of intelligence in the area …Videos released by Islamist groups in Indonesia show groups of young men undergoing military training … in preparation for a jihad in Rakhine state. Massive demonstrations in support of the Rohingya have been held throughout Bangladesh, where the influx of refugees has quickly become a domestic political issue pitting the ruling Awami League against a fundamentalist-backed opposition.”
Lintner noted that in October 2016 a similar clash with security forces and the subsequent response, which forced as many as 70,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, must have led to the conclusion that an even stronger response to the more widespread attacks of Aug. 25 would result. He added that “the victims of this cynical game are the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and others who have been forced from their destroyed homes.”
The timing of the attacks was no coincidence. On Aug. 24, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state, chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, released its report, accepted in full by State Counselor (a position equivalent to prime minister) Suu Kyi, suggesting peaceful ways to end the regional conflict. Rohingya, who have lived in Burma for centuries, were citizens until 1982, when legislation by the military removed citizenship, rendering them stateless and subject to forced labor and arbitrary confiscation of their property.
Burma’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo stresses that Suu Kyi has been overly criticized—“sometimes mercilessly”—by many over the actions of the military. He adds that even if Suu Kyi’s perceptions of the Rakhine situation are incorrect her “own lifetime sacrifice to resurrect from the ruins of junta misrule of sixty years is a great historic achievement … In her fragile hands, she holds the dreams of millions of this country.”
Bo addresses two new concerns: the rise of transnational insurgent groups and the demographic balance in Rakhine State. The government is worried that the indigenous population—already a minority in the state—will be overwhelmed if the Rohingya are given citizenship.
He credits Suu Kyi with resurrecting the peace process between the army and various ethnic militias, and organizing two conferences to provide space for dialogue among antagonistic parties. She also began the process of seeking a solution to the situation in Rakhine State.
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, now head of the Asia Society in New York, wrote in The New York Times (Sept 21) about the many complexities of Burma, including Nov. 2015, when Suu Kyi emerged as its democratic leader after nearly 50 years of military dictatorship:
“The military denied her the title of president through a constitutional provision. And most important … the military retained vast powers beyond its 25 percent stake in Parliament. It kept absolute authority over the country’s defenses, internal security and border control—and over the entire Civil Service. That distribution of power has meant that … Suu Kyi is legally prevented from directing the military or broader security forces to do anything against the wishes of the country’s supreme military commanders.”
The piece notes that many criticize Suu Kyi’s recent speech for not attacking the military brutality in Rakhine State. “But the speech did strike a delicate balance between outright criticism of the military and the political constraints she faces. She said that those guilty of human rights abuses will be dealt with under the full force of the law. Given that the military continues to hold power through the barrel of a gun, that position took courage.”
Rudd adds that Suu Kyi’s challenge is to avoid providing hard-line generals sufficient cause to justify a coup against her democratically-elected government while also working toward solutions for the Rohingya. The military wants to undermine her in the eyes of the international community as well.
The real danger is that unless the world understands the full dimensions of the crisis, the humanitarian disaster for the Rohingya can be prolonged and democratic governance in Burma will end.
In short, much more international pressure should be focused on the real culprits, including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and must involve effective action by the UN Security Council, a global arms embargo, and a visa ban on senior members of the military.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”