The reports are horrifying: soldiers and militiamen surrounding villages, raping women, decapitating children, herding men into buildings and setting them ablaze. The Burmese army is letting few outsiders into the northern part of Rakhine state, near the border with Bangladesh, so it is hard to be certain about the scale of the atrocities. But the UN says that well over 150,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August 25th, with 35,000 crossing the border in a single day this week. They are the lucky ones. Satellite images reveal burning villages across northern Rakhine, and bodies have been washing up on the shores of the river that separates Myanmar from Bangladesh. The victims are Rohingyas, a Muslim minority that has been persecuted by the Burmese authorities with varying degrees of ferocity since the 1980s.
Today’s government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a victim of persecution by past military regimes, and winner of the Nobel peace prize for her long vigil for democracy. But she seems no more sympathetic to the Rohingyas’ plight than her jackbooted predecessors. She denies that there is any systematic abuse by the security services, claiming instead that they are simply trying to hunt down organized Rohingya militants who have attacked police and army posts. Pleas from the UN, neighboring governments, aid agencies and even her fellow Nobel laureates to curb the violence and allow humanitarian aid to flow to the victims have had no effect. She is not even willing to use the term Rohingya; her government dismisses the 1m-strong group that has been present in Rakhine since precolonial times as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Ms Suu Kyi’s initial reluctance to take up the Rohingya cause was understandable, though not admirable. The vast majority of Burmese share the official view, that Rohingyas are foreign interlopers; many also imagine that, as Muslims, they are plotting against Buddhism, the religion of the majority. When sectarian riots broke out in 2012 between Rohingyas and Rakhine, a largely Buddhist ethnic group inhabiting the same region, the local media painted the Rohingyas as the aggressors, even though they came off much the worse. Moreover, Ms. Suu Kyi has little authority over the army, which granted itself the right to regulate itself (and the police) before handing power to her civilian government. Why take on an unpopular fight that she had almost no prospect of winning?
But the violence in Rakhine has reached such an unconscionable level that there can be no justifying continued passivity. Whether it is popular or not, the first duty of any government is to keep the people it governs alive. Even if Ms Suu Kyi cannot rein in the army, she should at least denounce its behavior, and make clear to ordinary Burmese the horrors it is unleashing in their name. She has managed to face the generals down once before, after all, during her campaign for democracy, and retains immense moral authority.
By the same token, Western governments have been reluctant to take Ms Suu Kyi too strongly to task, for fear of undermining the transition to democracy that they advocated for so long. The time for such delicacy is past. Democracy is of little worth if it entails mass displacement and slaughter. Foreign donors should make it clear that continued development aid depends on efforts to end to the violence.
Best of all would be to try to change the army’s behavior by adopting sanctions that punish it directly. It is heavily involved in business, with investments in everything from jade-mining to mobile networks. The top brass, in particular, benefit from sinecures in and payouts from this empire. Should America and other countries reinstate penalties for firms that do
business with companies linked to the army, the generals’ wealth would be imperiled. That might make them reconsider their conduct in Rakhine. The Burmese army is not easy to influence, but economic and diplomatic isolation do seem to have played a part in persuading it to surrender power in the first place. To spare the Rohingyas further suffering, such sanctions should be deployed again.
The plight of Rohingya is a humanitarian issue, and as such, it must be a concern of the international community beyond religion, race and ethnicity. Pope Francis, a leading and strident voice in the world, has expressed his ‘closeness’ to the persecuted minority and asked for recognising Rohingya rights. This issue, like many others in the past, shouldn’t be reduced to a Buddhist-Muslim problem, as it is not a religious issue, as some of the clerics here would like to reduce it to. It is essentially an ethnic, minority and citizenship issue on the agenda of the international community.
The human tragedy of Rohingya is a stain on the collective conscious of world and the world must come together and influence the Burmese civil and military establishment to recognize the plight of Rohingya and immediately halt the excessive use of force and stat sponsored violence against the already persecuted minority. However, the world community must act fast to address the dire situation of suffering of the Rohingya refugees. Also, it must pressure the Myanmar government to stop violence against the civilian population, and eventually force it to accept the Kofi Annan report, and grant citizenship rights to the Rohingya.