Commentary | 05 September 2017

'Aung San Suu Kyi makes things worse for Rohingya'

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Photo: Getty Images/Pool)

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Photo: Getty Images/Pool)

One evening in 1991, while under house arrest at her home in Yangon, Aung San Suu Kyi was listening to the radio when the presenter reported that she had won the Nobel peace prize.

The news, she recounted in her Nobel lecture two decades later, "did not seem quite real because in a sense I did not feel myself to be quite real at that time." Her imprisonment, she said, had divorced her from the reality around her. She credited the Nobel Committee's award with restoring that sense of reality and drawing her "back into the wider human community".

Today, Aung San Suu Kyi leads Myanmar's government, but seems to have once again lost that sense of reality and connection with the wider human community.

Over the past two weeks, Myanmar security forces have unleashed a campaign of terror against the country's ethnic Rohingya minority in parts of Rakhine State in the country's west. The violence has left at least 400 dead and forced 80,000 to flee into Bangladesh.

Refugees report that Myanmar's military has waged a scorched earth campaign, setting Rohingya villages alight from helicopters and driving people out of their communities. Many have nothing left and are now pouring into squalid refugee camps with little space or food in a country with little ability to assist them.

The latest "clearance operations," as Myanmar's military calls them, were launched in response to an August 25 attack on security forces by a Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which took the lives of 12 soldiers and policemen. Since then, there have been unconfirmed reports that ARSA has forced young Rohingya men and boys to stay behind and assist in further attacks, and that insurgents have executed Rohingya civilians suspected of collaboration with security forces.

In a statement in March, ARSA explained that it had been formed in response to persecution of the Rohingya over decades under military rule – but particularly out of a sense of frustration that Aung San Suu Kyi had not sought to improve their situation since coming to power exactly one year earlier.

As the situation has worsened, Aung San Suu Kyi has mostly remained silent about the violence. Her supporters overseas have pointed out that under the 2008 constitution, which was written by the military to keep her out of power, she has no control over the security services. Moreover, deep prejudices against the Rohingya within Myanmar mean any statement by Aung San Suu Kyi urging greater respect for their human rights are likely to be used against her and her party by the military's party at the next election.

But even if one accepts that Aung San Suu Kyi has little control over the operations, and that speaking out would advantage her autocratic opponents, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to take simple steps that would help to resolve the crisis or alleviate suffering.

Indeed, she has made matters worse.

For example, her office has alleged that Rohingya have burned down their own villages in order to elicit sympathy. It has argued that international aid organisations are assisting the insurgents, citing photos of World Food Program packets discovered in an alleged insurgent hideout. These allegations have put aid workers at grave risk in Rakhine State's current febrile climate.

Aung San Suu Kyi's office has characterised the ARSA as terrorists, an appellation that it does not use to describe any of the other 18 ethnic armed groups waging insurgencies throughout the country. The state media, which is under her control, has fanned the flames of hatred through its coverage of the attacks, and alleged that Rohingya accounts of atrocities are "fake news".

After the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva voted in March to send an international fact-finding mission to investigate earlier allegations of killings, rape, and torture in Rakhine State, Myanmar called the decision "unacceptable". The foreign ministry, which Aung San Suu Kyi leads, has declared it will not grant the delegation visas.

Aung San Suu Kyi has pointed instead to work of an advisory commission created by Myanmar's government, and led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to investigate long-term solutions to the situation in Rakhine State. The commission delivered its findings just before the ARSA attacks last month.

Many of the Annan Commission's recommendations are thoughtful solutions to the challenge of developing ethnic and religious harmony in Rakhine State. But what is needed now is urgent pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi and the military to halt the violence against Rohingya civilians, end the propaganda campaign against them and aid organisations in state media outlets, and to allow food aid back into Rakhine State where it can reach vulnerable populations.

If the military's clearance operations continue, there will be little chance of putting the Annan Commission's recommendations to work among Rakhine State's decimated and newly hostile Rohingya population.

As Aung San Suu Kyi herself noted in her 2012 Nobel lecture, "Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages".