Aung San Suu Kyi
Refugees and Displaced Persons
In a major address to the Myanmar public, and the international community today, Aung San Suu Kyi gave her first significant speech about the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State. This crisis has now become probably the worst humanitarian catastrophe in East Asia. Reports suggest that people have been fleeing Rakhine State at a faster rate than in any refugee exodus since 1971. Over 400,000 people have fled Rakhine State into Bangladesh in recent weeks. The UN has referred to the crisis as ethnic cleansing, and there seems to be no letup in the Myanmar military’s offensive in Rakhine State. Although President Trump did not mention the Rohingya in his address at the United Nations, Secretary of State Tillerson called Suu Kyi about the crisis. Other countries that historically have been strong backers of Suu Kyi, including Britain and Sweden, have expressed growing concern, and called private UN sessions about the crisis.
Suu Kyi decided not to come to this week’s United Nations General Assembly, and instead gave a major speech in Naypyidaw about the crisis. The speech confirmed much of what has already become evident about her approach to Rakhine State. That approach, reflected in this speech, is one in which she downplays the crisis, focuses instead on her other domestic priorities, refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar, plays to overall public opinion in Myanmar, and mostly defers to the military.
Suu Kyi sees her major priorities as addressing insurgencies in the north and northeast of the country, as I mentioned in a recent Washington Post article; she views the Rakhine crisis, however horrific, as just one among many challenges in border lands. The speech reflected these priorities. She, like many ethnic Burmans, seems to view the Rohingya as outsiders—she referred in the speech to “Muslims” in Rakhine State but did not refer to them as Rohingya.
She also seems to understand the political calculus in Myanmar; most of the population, as well as the army commanders, probably are supportive of the army’s scorched earth approach to Rakhine State—or at least do not mind it. Crowds rallied in central Myanmar to hear and cheer Suu Kyi’s speech; the domestic context of how her approach to Rakhine is viewed is vastly different from the international context.
Although Suu Kyi did indeed intend the speech for international audiences, and spoke in English, she only generally condemned all rights violations. She suggested that Naypyidaw did not understand the causes of the refugee outflow, basically pardoning the military for atrocities that are largely to blame for the exodus. She also seemed to suggest that the situation on the ground in Rakhine was becoming more peaceful and that many Rohingya were not fleeing—a dubious claim—and this might be because the situation in Rakhine is not as dire as the world believes. There is little evidence to support the idea that the armed forces are creating peace in Rakhine. She further added that Myanmar did not fear investigations into the crisis, even though journalists and aid workers have largely been kept out of northern Rakhine.
There is political calculus by Suu Kyi in this speech. The military commander-in-chief dominates security policy, and she may feel she can little sway what the armed forces do in Rakhine anyway. Most of the Myanmar population probably is uninterested in Rakhine State—at best.
But the speech was still even less than Suu Kyi perhaps could have said to an international audience, and it understates her own influence both domestically and internationally. Though the military has control of security policy, Suu Kyi’s immense popularity at home means that she could use the bully pulpit to change minds and indirectly influence the armed forces—and demonstrate that the civilian government is not totally prostrate to the army. She did not try to do any of those things today.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Refugees and Displaced Persons
Once championed as a selfless leader for democracy and hailed as her country’s Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar, delivered a long-awaited speech Tuesday morning that failed to fully address the crisis engulfing her country.
For the past several weeks, 400,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state to escape the country’s military. The violence was sparked in late August by the killing of 12 Myanmarese border police by a handful of Rohingya insurgents.The reaction of the Myanmar military has been a crackdown of unprecedented proportion, triggering the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis on earth. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that villages have been burned to the ground, women have been raped, and many have been killed.
In her 30-minute speech, Suu Kyi equivocated. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she said, referring to the mass movement of Rohingya out of Myanmar.
“The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” she said, and yet reports collected by humanitarian groups on the Bangladeshi border have described widespread violence and destruction.
Her remarks were delivered in English. It was a choice widely seen as directed toward the international community that has implored her to speak out against the actions of a military engaged in what Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Suu Kyi, beset by criticism, chose not to attend the UN General Assembly in New York this week, instead staying home and addressing the world from Myanmar.
Suu Kyi was once a pop cultural icon of human rights. She became a symbol for the pro-democracy party in Myanmar when she was first placed under house arrest by the ruling military junta in 1989. When given an opportunity to leave the country and join her husband and sons abroad, she remained locked up in Myanmar for a total of 15 years, rather than risk leaving her country and never being allowed to return. She was elected to office in 2015, and her passage to power — even though she shares governing with the military — was hailed as part of a landmark transition to democracy.
But in this morning’s speech, Suu Kyi took a vague approach to Mynamar’s current humanitarian crisis and refused to directly rebuke the military. “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she intoned to the gathering held in the country’s capital city, Naypyidaw. “We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict.”
She describedwhat has widely been reported as indiscriminate violence as the growing pains of a nascent democracy. She told those assembled, “We are a young and fragile country facing many problems, but we have to cope with them all. We cannot just concentrate on the few."
She also maintained that all those in Rakhine state — Buddhist and Muslim alike — have unfettered access to health care and schooling. Many reporters have disproven that statement. Since 1982, when they were stripped of citizenship, the Rohingya have been considered a stateless people denied their basic rights. Fortify Rights, a human rights advocacy group based in Southeast Asia, published a report in 2014 that detailed these abuses, including “restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship, and other aspects of everyday life.”
In the past five years, state-sponsored violent crackdowns on the Rohingya have triggered enormous population displacement. In 2015, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocidesent a fact-finding mission to the region. They came back warning that the region was at risk for genocide. And a 2016 military response to a similar insurgent attack on Myanmarese border police (which killed nine officers), sent 74,000 refugees fleeing for Bangladesh, carrying with them stories of rape, murder, and burned villages.
This recent military operation has been even more severe. Almost half the Rohingya have fled for the border. Some 60 percent of the refugees are children.
“In a nut shell, the speech was providing cover for the military,” Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingya: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, wrote me by email.
He noted that Suu Kyi invited independent investigators into the country to investigate the problem. “She wants to know why Rohingya are fleeing to Bangladesh,” he said, in a nod to her statement that “We want to find out why this exodus is happening.”
Ibrahim added, “So either she doesn't know or is simply trying to deceive. Both are very bad.”
The images of Rohingya refugees have shocked the world.
“We are hearing really horrendous stories of people who have survived by the skin of their teeth,” Paolo Lubrano, an Oxfam worker in Cox’s Bazar, a town on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, told me by Skype Friday morning. Lubrano described “dire violence” and an enormous number of very young, and very traumatized, Rohingya refugees. Among those fleeing Myanmar, he added, are many pregnant women who have been walking for three, four, or even five days to find safety.
For weeks, Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel laureates have begged her to condemn the violence. But when she finally spoke this morning, her words came up short.