A pang of conscience in Myanmar

The military’s admission of a mass atrocity perpetrated against the minority Rohingya may hint at a desire to end one of the world’s worst cases of human rights abuse.

Rohingya refugee children sit inside a classroom at Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Jan.4, 2018.

If coming clean about one’s mistakes is a first step toward remorse, Myanmar’s military deserves praise for a rare moment of honesty. On Jan. 10, the country’s top brass admitted its security forces murdered 10 Rohingya Muslims last September and buried them in a mass grave. After months of flat-out denials about committing such atrocities, the news may be telling.

This bit of truth, however, could simply be a “limited hangout” to contain international concerns over the Army’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s minority. Yet it might also serve as an opening for Myanmar to finally uncover and end one of the world’s worst cases of human rights abuse.

Over the past year, the military has driven more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State into Bangladesh. It is also accused of killing more than 6,000 despite the fact that Rohingya have lived in the country for generations. Last October, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned, “The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities.” In addition, human rights groups seek to bring the country’s generals before the International Criminal Court.

Any hint of contrition would be welcome. It might also be helpful in bringing peace to Myanmar’s other long-simmering ethnic conflicts.

Over three decades, Myanmar’s military has steadily been forced to relinquish its dictatorial powers. But it still holds the reins on what it views as security issues. It grants little authority over the Rohingya issue to Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the civilian side of an elected government.

Still, the military has lately felt the pinch of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, such as a loss of revenue from declining tourism. The generals are also sensitive to complaints from other Southeast Asian countries.

In 2015, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi offered this advice to her people about dealing with the Army: “Whatever mistake they have made in the past, we need to give them the chance to change.”

For countries long ruled by a military, the task of easing generals from power must be done with skillful and peaceful means. One tactic in overcoming such institutional resistance is to encourage an army to admit past wrongs, especially mass killings. At the least, such honesty may lead to remorse, which suggests empathy toward victims. That method may be a possible path to end the civil violence in Myanmar.

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