Syed Munir Khasru
Myanmar’s de facto ruler Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a special informal meeting with Foreign Ministers of ASEAN next Monday in Yangon to discuss international concerns over the state of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Since October 9, when soldiers poured into Rakhine, over 130 Rohingyas have been killed and dozens of buildings in their villages torched. The United Nations estimates that 30,000 Rohingyas have been displaced by the ongoing violence in Rakhine. According to analysis of satellite images from Human Rights Watch, more than 1,000 houses in Rohingya villages have been razed in northwestern Myanmar. Bangladesh has provided food and shelter to around 30,000 documented Rohingyas.
Assuming office as the State Counsellor of Myanmar after her party’s landslide victory in 2015, Ms. Suu Kyi initiated the formation of an independent and representative advisory commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to seek “lasting solutions” to the Rohingya crisis. This was the first time any concrete initiative was undertaken by the Myanmar authorities after the 2012 Rakhine State riots between the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Since the enactment of the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, which effectively denies to the Rohingyas the possibility of acquiring a nationality, the 1.33 million Rohingyas have led perilous and uncertain lives and have migrated in large numbers to safer places. The recent military intervention was initiated to track down unidentified insurgents thought to be responsible for the attack on police border posts on October 9 in Maungdaw village in which nine Burmese policemen were shot dead. Maungdaw was immediately declared a counterterrorism “operation zone” and from October 10, humanitarian aid to the region was suspended. Reports of a crackdown by the army are difficult to verify due to limited media access to Rakhine. The army maintains that the buildings were, in fact, demolished by the Rohingyas themselves, and requested international media to examine all claims.
In a democratic setting, the killings on October 9, even if actually committed by Rohingya insurgents, should have been investigated through the formation of an independent judicial commission following which appropriate administrative, legal, and punitive measures should have been taken against the perpetrators. Launching a hasty and brutal military crackdown is not the answer, for it hardly makes any distinction between vulnerable villagers fleeing their homes and those who have committed the crime.
The State Counsellor Office Information Committee claimed that the army’s involvement in Rakhine was intended to be an “area clearance” operation in the inner part of the region. However, continued denial of access to the international media raises legitimate questions on the credibility of such statements released by the government. Mr. Annan said: “We stressed in all our meetings that wherever security operations might be necessary, civilians must be protected at all times, and I urge the security services to act in full compliance with the rule of law.”
Crackdown by the military, lack of proper judiciary processes, unavailability of NGOs and aid workers, and limited media access are all reminders that a country that has finally found democracy after decades of struggle still has a long way to go before vestiges of the past mired by blood and conflict can become a distant memory. There is still hope in Ms. Suu Kyi’s leadership, the military’s pragmatism, and the goodwill that the international community now has for Mynamar. This new democracy needs to find a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, as much for itself as for the refugees who should not be either forgotten or forsaken by the global community. Migrants, whether in Asia or Europe, should be treated with the same degree of humanity.
Syed Munir Khasru