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
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