Diplomats in Myanmar remain silent as military continues Rohingya assault
Rohingya calamity deepens, and world can only watch.
YANGON, Myanmar – It is unfolding again: Troops have unleashed fire and rape and indiscriminate slaughter on a vulnerable minority, driving hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee and creating a humanitarian emergency that crosses borders.
A crisis in Myanmar that many saw coming has brought a host of uncomfortable questions along with it: Why did the world – which promised “never again” after Rwanda and Bosnia, then Sudan and Syria – seemingly do so little to forestall an ethnic cleansing campaign by Myanmar’s military? And what can be done now to address the urgent humanitarian calamity caused when more than half of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya Muslims fled the country over just a few weeks?
OutsideMyanmar,criticismofitsmilitary has mounted. The United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has urged “unfettered access” for international agencies and called the Rohingya crisis “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian ANALYSIS and human rights nightmare.”
President Emmanuel Macron of France has called it genocide. And there is talk, although still tentative, of the European Union’s renewing targeted sanctions on people culpable in the violence that has driven the Rohingya from Rakhine, a state in western Myanmar.
But in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, where the diplomatic corps is based, there is still reluctance to call to task publicly either the military or the civilian administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Some diplomats say they are trying to preserve whatever influence they may have left, in order to avert an even worse catastrophe.
More than half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since late August, when a Rohingya militant attack on Myanmar security posts catalyzed a brutal counteroffensive. Hundreds of thousands more remaining in Myanmar may still be trying to cross the border. Those who cannot flee are trapped and hungry in northern Rakhine, according to anecdotal evidence collected by international aid agencies, which the government has largely prevented from delivering relief supplies or even assessing need in the region.
“There are few places on Earth where we are denied access to this extent,” said Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We have an office in northern Rakhine, we have staff there, we have supplies there, we could go tomorrow with our trucks – but we are being stopped. This is illegal, this is intolerable.”
I spoke to half a dozen ambassadors and senior aid agency staff members in Yangon about what the problem was. All asked to speak off the record.
There are many reasons for their reticence, but a major one is this: Myanmar has been presented as a success story, despite a host of economic and ethnic problems. Elections in 2015 elevated Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose name was once a byword for acts of conscience, and seemed to usher in a chance for democracy to take hold.
But whatever authority she has, as the nation’s state counselor, is dwarfed by that of a military that ruled for nearly half a century and continues to monopolize power. Suu Kyi is not the one ordering Rohingya villages to be burned down or civilians to be massacred. That firepower lies with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
Diplomats say Suu Kyi used to express sympathy for the Rohingya in private, explaining that she could not speak out because of widespread hatred for them among the Buddhist majority. But over the past year or so, she has played to that prejudice, referring instead to the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
In an address Thursday, Suu Kyi pushed back against international criticism and promised to personally oversee efforts to bring peace to Rakhine and repatriate those who have fled to Bangladesh. Suu Kyi declined to tackle accusations that the military has unleashed arson, murder and rape on the Rohingya. Despite Suu Kyi’s obfuscations, diplomats in Yangon have tended to avoid increasing public pressure. Veteran observers of Myanmar’s military, which has long faced condemnation for its brutality toward civilians and ethnic minorities, have warned that an international shaming of a disgraced Nobel laureate is just what the generals want. “She gets all the criticism, and then the Tatmadaw gets to quietly do what it wants and what it has done for decades, which is to burn villages and terrorize ethnic areas,” said David Scott Mathieson, a longtime human-rights researcher in Myanmar.
Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi gathered at an interreligious gathering of prayers for peace organized by her party this week in Yangon, Myanmar. As the humanitarian crisis for Rohingya Muslims worsens, envoys are reluctant to criticize Suu Kyi.