No resolution in sight
One year on, Suu Kyi silence lends tacit support to army action against the persisting Rohingya crisis
August 25, 2018 marked one year of one of the worst refugee crisis of 21st century after some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims made a deadly journey on foot or boat from Myanmar's Rakhine state to neighbouring Bangladesh in the wake of a military crackdown following attacks on border posts by Rohingya rebels. Myanmar has denied any wrongdoing.
Even after a year, the refugees, mostly women and children, living in camps in extremely bad condition in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh face a grim future as the international community's reaction to the crisis, which the United Nations has likened to "ethnic cleansing," has been too slow.
The reason for slow reaction by the international community could be because of lack of access to human rights and humanitarian organisations to the affected areas. There has been a crackdown on journalists. Two Reuters reporters who uncovered a mass grave have been imprisoned for months now.
A UN probe, report of which was released last week, said Myanmar's civilian leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, failed to protect Rohingya Muslims from mass murder orchestrated by the country's military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and five generals. All the generals, it said, should be prosecuted for genocide.
The report detailed a horrifying list of atrocities including murder, enforced disappearance, torture and sexual violence on "massive scale. The investigators said an estimate that up to 10,000 Rohingya had been killed was "conservative".
The investigation panel, which interviewed 875 victims and witnesses in Bangladesh and other countries and analysed documents, videos, photographs and satellite images, found that soldiers had carried out "large-scale gang rape," sometimes of as many as 40 girls and women at once in at least 10 Rakhine villages.
"The scale, brutality and systematic nature of these violations indicate that rape and sexual violence are part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorise or punish a civilian population, and are used as a tactic of war," the report said.
Adopting a defiant posture, Myanmar understandably rejected the report. "We did not allow the FFM (the UN Fact-Finding Mission) to enter Myanmar, that is why we don't agree and accept any resolution made by the Human Rights Council," the government spokesman Zaw Htay was quoted as saying by the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
The refugees are stuck in overcrowded camps without official refugee status, facing vagaries of weather, having scant healthcare, no electricity and few facilities like water and sanitation and little hope of returning to their homes in the near future.
As per UN estimates nearly 1.3 lakh Rohingyas are left in Myanmar and their life is no better. Journalists on a recent trip organised by the government found Rohingyas forced to live in squalid camps, apartheid-like conditions and without adequate health care or the ability to travel freely.
The UN has called for nearly one billion USD to address the basic needs of the refugees but unfortunately, even after a year only about one-third of that has been met.
In one year, there has not been much effort to punish Myanmar for its action. The US had only sanctioned one top military commander who had been in charge of units in the operation area. The Treasury Department took more action last week slapping penalties on four Myanmar commanders who led teams that engaged in human rights abuses and two units that conducted attacks.
The US action came after the European Union and Canada in June imposed their own sanctions on seven Myanmar military officials freezing their assets within the EU and Canadian jurisdictions and banning them from travelling to Europe and doing business with Canada.
However, no action has been taken against the top echelon of the military junta including the commander-in-chief.
Suu Kyi, who has faced criticism from the West for lack of action, is largely silent on the issue except saying in a speech last September, "We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence."
Last week's UN report has found that while she has no power over the generals it named as responsible for the violence against the Rohingyas, she had "not used her de facto position as head of the government nor her moral authority to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine."
The virtual silence of Suu Kyi, State Counselor, akin to a Prime Minister, demonstrated her tacit support to the actions of the army, which remains all-powerful in the country, and had contributed to what had happened by denying the generals' culpability, spreading false narratives and preventing independent investigations.
Whatever may be the reason, the fact is she has compromised and has disappointed the world, observers say.
In June this year, Myanmar's government signed an agreement with the United Nations that will lead to the "voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable" repatriation of the refugees back to their homes. However, it is unlikely that they would like to go back to face the situation that has barely changed since they had left.
The responsibility for implementation of the agreement for repatriation and reintegration of the refugees falls on the Myanmar government itself. So far, it has done nothing visible that indicates that it has taken the responsibility seriously.
With China and Russia being supportive of Myanmar, an intervention by the UN Security Council seems to be out of question.
More aggressive efforts are required by the international community, particularly the West and the UN Security Council to ensure that the refugees go back to their homes or the place of their choice in Myanmar to lead a peaceful life with equal rights.
(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)