The unofficial leader of Myanmar (formerly Burma) canceled a trip to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, ostensibly because she is needed at home to deal with a terrorist insurgency.
Most observers outside Myanmar believe the formerly celebrated, Nobel-winning Aung San Suu Kyi is hiding from the international community that once lauded her, because her government is conducting a campaign of repression—perhaps even ethnic cleansing or genocide—against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
News reports generally describe Suu Kyi as the “unofficial” or “de facto” leader of Myanmar, because she is technically only State Counsellor, subordinate to elected President Htin Kyaw. Htin Kyaw, formerly an assistant to Suu Kyi, was installed in the presidential office as a “benchwarmer” because Suu Kyi’s marriage to a British national made her technically ineligible to hold the presidency—a technicality designed by the previous rulers of Burma specifically to exclude her from the top office.
Suu Kyi is indisputably the dominant force in Myanmar politics, a Nelson Mandela figure who spent almost twenty years under arrest as a martyr to democracy. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and declared “Burma’s Modern Symbol of Freedom.”
To put it mildly, the situation with the Rohingya has tarnished Suu Kyi’s reputation among the international community. There is a growing sense of anger at her for pretending she has no authority to stop the violence when she is recognized around the world as both the moral and political leader of her country.
“How many Rohingya have to die; how many Rohingya women will be raped; how many communities will be razed before you raise your voice in defense of those who have no voice?” five of her fellow female Nobel laureates asked her in an open letter published on Wednesday. “Your silence is not in line with the vision of ‘democracy’ for your country that you outlined to us, and for which we all supported you over the years.”
In a Thursday op-ed for CNN, Chatham House Associate Fellow Charu Lata Hogg, formerly a U.N. adviser on human rights, found Suu Kyi “curiously distant” and said she looked “isolated, stubborn, and uncaring” by remaining silent as the Rohingya are driven out of Myanmar.
Over at the Washington Post, Indian journalist Barkha Dutt professes herself to be a longtime admirer of Suu Kyi who is baffled by her slide into the “moral abyss,” and her betrayal of the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.
A petition to strip Suu Kyi of her Nobel Peace Prize, because she has “done virtually nothing to stop this crime against humanity in her country,” has garnered 40,000 signatures.
The situation is complicated by long-simmering tensions between the majority Buddhist population of Myanmar and the Muslim Rohingya, and by the fact that Rohingya insurgents have resorted to violence several times in the past. The current crisis was sparked by a Rohingya insurgent attack that killed nine Myanmar border police last October. A massive Rohingya attack against dozens of police posts in August resulted in at least 32 deaths.
Myanmar officials defend their actions against the Rohingya as legitimate responses to a terrorist crisis, or perhaps even a foreign invasion, since Myanmar and the Burmese government before them have long insisted the Rohingya are not legal residents of their country. The Myanmar government argues that the Rohingya should actually be seen as citizens of Bangladesh, which is where the Rohingya have generally fled as Myanmar forces drive them back.
Bangladesh strenuously disagrees, calling upon Myanmar to accept the return of some 370,000 refugees who have fled across the border. The situation has degenerated into what some describe as a mass exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh. U.N. officials have employed one of the darkest phrases in their lexicon, “ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar is widely accused of going much too far in response to attacks from Rohingya militants, effectively disregarding the distinction between insurgent fighters and the general population as it conducts large-scale actions against civilians. Amnesty International has accused the government of conducting a literal “scorched earth” campaign against Rohingya civilians, burning them out of their homes and then randomly murdering them as they flee.
“There is a clear and systematic pattern of abuse here. Security forces surround a village, shoot people fleeing in panic and then torch houses to the ground. In legal terms, these are crimes against humanity—systematic attacks and forcible deportation of civilians,” said Amnesty International crisis director Tirana Hassan.
The Myanmar government confirmed on Thursday that almost 40 percent of Rohingya villages in Rakhine State are now empty. The government continues to insist that all of the displaced persons are “directly involved with terrorist activities” or are “sympathizers for the terrorist group”; a spokesman claimed many of the refugees are simply running away from the police. The government rebuffed a ceasefire deal from the Rohingya insurgent force last weekend by saying it will not negotiate with terrorists.
The government has also claimed the Rohingya are setting the fires themselves, an assertion flatly rejected by Amnesty International’s Tirana Hassan, saying, “The government’s attempts to shift the blame to the Rohingya population are blatant lies. Our investigation makes it crystal clear that its own security forces, along with vigilante mobs, are responsible for burning Rohingya homes.”
The United Nations asked for additional humanitarian relief for Rohingya refugees on Thursday, and called on the government of Myanmar to end the violence. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Myanmar’s government to grant the Rohingya official legal status as citizens or residents, while also condemning attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday that he spoke to Suu Kyi, and she “agreed with the need for immediate and improved access of humanitarian assistance to the region, particularly by the International Red Cross.”
Myanmar has enjoyed the support of two fairly staunch allies, India and China, throughout the Rohingya crisis. China insists Myanmar is doing what is necessary to “uphold peace and stability” in Rahkine State, believes the international community should support the government’s efforts to protect national stability, and holds Rohingya insurgents responsible for instigating violence.
India also denounced “extremist violence” from the Rohingya, and said the insurgents were a legitimate threat to Myanmar’s national security. In fact, Indian officials believe the 40,000 or so Rohingya refugees currently living in India are a threat to Indian national security.
India has, however, expressed some recent discomfort with the extent of the crackdown in Rakhine State, and announced on Thursday that it will send a substantial amount of humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.