Burma’s brave leader needs to halt this tragedy

The bru­tal ex­pul­sion of the Ro­hingya in Rakhine shows the country’s mil­i­tary should be curbed

The Sunday Telegraph - - Letters to the editor - BORIS JOHNSON SIR – The new poly­mer notes should be called bendy and springy. Eleanor Pa­trick Els­don, Northum­ber­land READ MORE at tele­graph.co.uk/opin­ion

Iwould defy any­body to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and not be moved by her courage and re­silience. For decades she faced down Burma’s mil­i­tary rulers by peace­ful means, en­dur­ing 15 years of house ar­rest – and never once yield­ing un­der pres­sure. The world ac­claimed her with the No­bel Peace Prize; her com­pa­tri­ots re­warded her in­domitable spirit by el­e­vat­ing Ms Suu Kyi to high of­fice through free elec­tions.

I would sub­mit that her courage has never been more nec­es­sary than it is to­day. For what is tak­ing place in north­ern Rakhine State in Burma is a man-made tragedy with all the hall­marks of a de­lib­er­ate and bru­tal pol­icy. The time has come for Ms Suu Kyi to use her moral author­ity to chal­lenge the mil­i­tary ruth­less­ness and eth­nic prej­u­dice that lies behind this suf­fer­ing. More than 500,000 Ro­hingya refugees have been driven from their homes in lit­tle over a month, stream­ing over the bor­der into Bangladesh, des­ti­tute and ex­hausted.

An out­flow on this scale tells its own story. When so many peo­ple are dis­placed so quickly – and about half of all the Ro­hingya in Rakhine have now fled – this can only be the re­sult of a de­lib­er­ate action to ex­pel a mi­nor­ity, un­less they are able to re­turn in safety.

An abun­dance of dis­turb­ing tes­ti­mony is freely avail­able. Refugees in Bangladesh have de­scribed the ter­ror and de­struc­tion they left behind. Satel­lite pho­tographs in the public do­main show the charred and black­ened re­mains of homes in 210 vil­lages burned to the ground in Rakhine since Aug 25. That was the day when in­sur­gents from the so-called Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army raided 30 po­lice sta­tions across the state. Bri­tain joined ev­ery mem­ber of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in con­demn­ing those at­tacks.

No one ques­tions Burma’s right to self-de­fence. But no amount of provo­ca­tion could jus­tify a mil­i­tary cam­paign that dis­places so many peo­ple. Burma’s gen­er­als should not be sur­prised by how their ac­tions have stirred such pro­found con­cern in Bri­tain and else­where. Last Thurs­day, the UK called an open meet­ing of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to fo­cus in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion on the sit­u­a­tion in Burma. Dur­ing the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly in New York, I brought to­gether the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Burma and Bangladesh, along with other key coun­tries in­clud­ing In­done­sia, Turkey, Amer­ica and China.

On my right sat Burma’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, U Thaung Tun. He was left in no doubt of our strength of feel­ing. My col­leagues and I de­liv­ered a united mes­sage on what needs to be done. In the first in­stance the killing should stop and the UN must be al­lowed to de­liver aid wher­ever needed. Once peace is re­stored, Burma’s gov­ern­ment should en­sure that ev­ery Ro­hingya refugee is able to go home. Then there has to be ac­count­abil­ity for what has hap­pened in Rakhine. Fi­nally, the gov­ern­ment needs to keep its prom­ise to im­ple­ment the re­port of the Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion on Rakhine, chaired by Kofi An­nan, the former UN sec­re­tary gen­eral.

Burma’s civil­ian lead­ers have agreed to do this. Dur­ing her ad­dress to the na­tion last week, Ms Suu Kyi said the gov­ern­ment would im­ple­ment “ev­ery sin­gle rec­om­men­da­tion that will ben­e­fit peace”. She fur­ther promised that “ver­i­fied” refugees would be al­lowed to re­turn “with­out any prob­lems”. But there are dis­turb­ing signs that pop­u­lar feel­ing against the Ro­hingya is so wide­spread and in­tense that refugees are afraid to go home – and may not be ac­cepted by other com­mu­ni­ties even if they do.

That is why Ms Suu Kyi’s unique courage and stature are so important. Only she stands a chance of chal­leng­ing the prej­u­dice against the Ro­hingya that is so preva­lent, alas, in Burmese so­ci­ety, and mak­ing good on her words that she does not wish to lead a “na­tion di­vided by re­li­gious be­liefs or eth­nic­ity”. She has ev­ery right to point out that her elected gov­ern­ment has only been in of­fice for 18 months: no one can ex­pect her to have solved a deeply rooted prob­lem in such a short span. And gen­er­als still wield con­sid­er­able power in Burma, de­spite the par­tial tran­si­tion to civil­ian rule.

The com­man­der in chief, Gen­eral Min Aung Hlaing, seems con­tent to leave Ms Suu Kyi to carry the bur­den of in­ter­na­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ac­tions of his forces in Rakhine.

But now is the time for Ms Suu Kyi to speak the truth to the mil­i­tary and make clear that campaigns of this kind are un­ac­cept­able and must never be re­peated. If she does, her friends will back her to the hilt.

Boris Johnson is Sec­re­tary of State for For­eign and Com­mon­wealth Af­fairs

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