Shameful Silence

By Arhama Siddiqa.

Two sets of high-definition images of Myanmar taken from outer space: both are shot in the morning, both show the same villages inhabited by Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. The first set, from 2014, shows a small collection of homes where the underclass group have settled. The buildings set in the midst of trees demonstrate some form of life and activity. However the second set of images, taken in November 2016 show square patches of burnt earth…land where homes once stood.

Provided by Human Rights Watch, the imageries show the nearly 800 structures that have been destroyed in three different villages, and are evidence of the fact that Myanmar is seeking the active ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya- at least from its territory.

A year after the flight of Rohingya refugees into the Andaman Sea, christened the Southeast Asian refugee crisis, the implacable persecution of the ethnic minority living in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, continues unchanged.

Hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes; their towns and villages demolished to the ground by rioting mobs. In 2014, the government even banned the use of the word “Rohingya”, insisting the Muslim minority, who have lived in that country for generations, be registered in the census as “Bengali”. For years the Rohingyas have lived stateless. They have been terrorized by violent Buddhists who wrongly label; them illegal Bengali immigrants. More than 120,000 of them have been forced into camps. Following the 9th October Rohingya militant attacks on border posts, an army crackdown was sure to ensue. It came as no surprise when humanitarian assistance was cut off completely. Since then around 27,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Still about 1million of them remain. Before the recent chaos, tens of thousands of Rohingyas in northern Rakhine depended on aid for food, water and health care. The blockade has severed that lifeline.

UNICEF has warned that thousands of undernourished children are in danger of starving and lack medical care. The United Nations and the United States are calling for an objective investigation into the violence, and Human Rights Watch is insisting that the government should invite the United Nations to assist. Amnesty International has said that the army’s “callous and systematic campaign of violence” is a crime against humanity. Myanmar’s government however, dismisses these allegations as mere fabrications.

One year ago, after a historic election, Aung Saan Suu Kyi the longtime democracy champion and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, became head of a new democratic government, stirring hope that she would bring an end to the Rohingya’s travail. With such an esteemed Nobel laureate in charge who wouldn’t?

Case in point being the Obama administration, which in September 2016 dropped remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar, citing, among other accomplishments, the new government’s focus on bringing “respect for human rights to its people.”

That call now appears to have been hasty. Ms. Suu Kyi insists on accentuating the Rohingya’s alienation by referring to them as “Bengalis” and maintains that the government’s response towards them has always been based on “the rule of law.”

In a remarkable 2013 interview with BBC’s Mishal Hussain Suu Kyi refused to condemn the systematic violence against the Rohingya- that same violence that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said could amount to crimes against humanity. It was reported that Suu Kyi was so incensed left that BBC interview muttering, “No one told me I was going to interviewed by a Muslim”.

In genocide, silence is complicity, and so it is with Aung San Suu Kyi. Her silence is inexcusable. Her refusal to condemn, or even fully acknowledge, the state-sponsored subjugation of her fellow compatriots, makes her part of the problem, not the solution.

The woman who once personified the very essence of the struggle for democracy has been virtually mute on the issue of the Rohingya. Not only was she accused of a shameful lack of courage for refusing to call them by their name, she was criticized by The Dalai Lama for not speaking more openly on the issue. To add to this, she has since demanded that the US government also not use the name Rohingya.

The Rohingya’s are not even one of Myanmar’s officially recognized ethnic groups. This continued refusal of the Myanmar government matters because it means the group does not get the rights guaranteed by Myanmar’s constitution which are only conferred on citizens. It also justifies the army’s actions since the constitution does not protect non-citizens from arbitrary detention. Hence the mass arrests of Rohnigyas and the ill treatment meted out to them may in fact not violate the law.

Defenders of Suu Kyi argue her hands are tied by all-powerful military elite. They also point to the new advisory commission, the government set up chaired by Kofi Anan, tasked with ending the violence and promoting peace. While some local politicians are already refusing to cooperate it should also be noted that this commission has no power to enforce those recommendations. That power rests with the government and the government alone.

There was another beacon of hope in late August 2016 when Ms Suu Kyi convened four days peace talks in Myanmar’s capital in late August with representatives of 17 of the country’s mutinous groups. But apart from grandiose statements and vague promises, nothing of significance was achieved.

Even international forums have been tragically silent. One example; The Regional Cooperation Framework (RCF), which is a key element of the Bali Process on people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime, aims to push for more practical arrangements between its member states, including the implementation of burden-sharing and collective-responsibility principles. Ironically, Myanmar is also a member state.

This raises the question of what the world should be doing now. And the answer is clear – it is time for the international body to look past Suu Kyi and intervene on behalf of the Rohingyas.

To begin with, the international community should pressurize the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and demand an immediate end to the punishment and killings of the Rohingya, which have so far been discarded under the guise of “security sweeps”. Any solution should be the implementation of strict regional measures at both the ASEAN and Asia Pacific levels.

Moreover, international aid organizations and journalists must be allowed proper access inside Rakhine State to provide desperately required medical attention and bring to light the atrocities which are being carried out. If this situation deteriorates much further, ASEAN can expect to face a mass migration soon.

Perhaps the image of “The Lady,” as she is known, was has always been romanticized.  As part of her struggle against the country’s military rulers Suu Kyi spent 15 years in confinement, waiting for justice. Now that she is in power, how many years will she make the Rohingya wait for justice? Only time will tell.

About Author:

Arhama Siddiqa is a LUMS and University of Warwick Alumnus. She is currently a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. Her prime area of interest is World Politics and she can be reached at arhama.siddiqa@issi.org.pk

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