Sept 8, 2017
The problem is not just the fact that Myanmar does not recognize the basic human rights of Rohingya people. It is that they are barely treated as human at all. When an aid ship arrived in Myanmar earlier this year with food and emergency supplies, it was met with a small group of protesters bearing the sign “No Rohingya”. The resistance to even providing aid is a telling sign of how the Rohingya are treated in Myanmar.
All human beings are endowed with reason and conscience. These are the words in the opening lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely recognized statement of the rights that every person on our planet has. There are some days however, that can truly test the core belief that we all have the gift of conscience – the ability to see the difference between right and wrong.
Wednesday was such a day, when Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence on the disaster unfolding in Myanmar, the country of which the Nobel laureate is the de facto leader.
In her first comments on the military’s onslaught, Suu Kyi’s office claimed that the government is defending all the people in Rakhine state “in the best possible way”. Her words are an unconscionable response to the unfolding human rights and humanitarian catastrophe.
The reality on the ground is that ethnic minorities in the Rakhine state are suffering appalling abuses from an unlawful and disproportionate military campaign. Many of those on the receiving end are the Rohingya people, the country’s long-persecuted mainly Muslim ethnic group.
These are the facts. In the early morning of Friday 25 August, a Rohingya armed group launched a series of coordinated attacks on security forces in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Since then, clashes have continued, but with Myanmar’s military taking a totally unjustified and hugely disproportionate scorched earth approach in responding to the violence. Amnesty International researchers are receiving numerous reports of widespread abuses, including of security forces opening fire on civilians. Satellite images suggest evidence of villages being razed to the ground.
More than 150,000 Rohingya people have poured into Bangladesh in that time. The vast majority of them are women and children. The scenes at the border of Bangladesh are of biblical proportions. Young children, the elderly, men and women have walked for days on end through mud and torrential downpours, just to reach camps or villages where there is little food, water or medical provisions to sustain them.
The death toll is already estimated to be in the high hundreds. But with UN investigators, aid groups, human rights monitors and journalists denied entry, it is clear Myanmar is happy to blindfold the rest of the world to stop us seeing what is happening in northern Rakhine. We would not at all be surprised if, once independent investigators are able to do their work, they will conclude that crimes against humanity are taking place.
The Rohingya population of about a million people are living in fear right now, but this is far from a new experience for them. The violence we are seeing in northern Rakhine occurs in a wider context of long-standing, blatant and systematic discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar. They are a people who have lived through decades of crushing persecution at the hands of a vindictive military, which is now led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Rohingyas in northern Rakhine State are denied the right to a nationality and to participate in public life. They face severe restrictions on their rights to freedom of movement, access to education, healthcare and livelihoods. They are also unable to build or maintain mosques or gather for prayers.
The problem however is not just the fact that Myanmar does not recognise the basic human rights of Rohingya people. It is that they are barely treated as human at all. When an aid ship arrived in Myanmar earlier this year with food and emergency supplies bound for the troubled state of Rakhine, it was met with a small group of protesters bearing the sign “No Rohingya”. The resistance to even providing aid is a telling sign of how the Rohingya are treated in Myanmar.
Unless the Myanmar authorities make every effort to end the long-standing and systematic discrimination in Rakhine State, people will be left trapped in a cycle of violence and destitution.
But Myanmar is not alone in its vilification of this friendless group. Across the region, the Rohingya stand out as a persecuted people. In the midst of this crisis, India is pursuing a cruel plan to deport the 40,000 Rohingya who have taken refuge there. At a protest in New Delhi on Tuesday, a Rohingya refugee, Mohamed Irshad, summed up the situation with a desperate plea: “We are also human beings. Please see us as a human.”
It is against this backdrop that Aung San Suu Kyi is blaming “terrorists” and claiming that her government is defending all the people of Rakhine “in the best way possible”.
With her words, Suu Kyi has taken a leaf out of the very same playbook used by hardline authoritarian leaders. She may not be pulling the strings of the military, but by acting as the public mouthpiece and apologist for the unconscionable actions of the military, she is enabling the continued vilification and de-humanization of Rohingya.
Aung San Suu Kyi may be in government but she is not in power – the military is principally responsible for these abuses and only they can stop it. She does however have a moral duty to speak out against injustice. After all, it was she herself who said “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.” She like the rest of us, is endowed with reason and conscience, and therefore the ability to do what is right and treat others with humanity. That is the bare minimum that the Rohingya people are asking for.
*Salil Shetty is secretary general of Amnesty International. The views expressed are personal.