Last Thursday, just hours before Rohingya militants attacked more than two dozen police and border outposts in western Myanmar, the former head of the United Nations presaged the coming violence in an urgent warning.
“Unless concerted action led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalization,” former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at a news conference in Yangon.
The news conference was held to promote the release of a new report on how to improve the lives of Buddhists and Muslims living in Rakhine state, one of the country’s most impoverished and conflict-torn regions, from which tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have fled violence in recent years. But it was soon overshadowed by the attacks that occurred overnight Thursday and left 89 people dead. Subsequent clashes between security forces and insurgents have raised the death toll to more than 100 and forced more than 9,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims to flee into Bangladesh.
The renewed violence appears certain to spur additional scrutiny of how closely Myanmar's government follows the report’s recommendations for improving economic development and social justice in Rakhine. Human rights experts argue those reforms would dampen the militants’ cause by improving living conditions for the Rohingya. The attacks may bolster the government’s position, however, that it needs tight control over a growing security threat.
The contrast is underscored by the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her pro-democracy work during years of house arrest. Ms. Suu Kyi made bringing peace to Rakhine and other regions torn apart by ethnic conflict a top priority after her party won a landslide election in 2015, ending half a century of military rule. Yet critics say the recent clashes highlight how little progress she’s made – and how eager the military is to step in with often-brutal tactics.
Yee Htun, a human rights advocate from Myanmar and instructor at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., says the reforms outlined in the new report can’t come soon enough for Rakhine.
“At the heart of this crisis are policies and practices that have a real dehumanizing effect,” she says. “If you don’t resolve these underlying problems, the chance of the violence erupting again and again is a real risk.”
Although Myanmar is overwhelmingly Buddhist, about 1 million Rohingya, who are Muslim, live in the northern part of Rakhine. Many Buddhists in Myanmar insist the Rohingya are from neighboring Bangladesh, although they have lived in the country for generations. The government denies them citizenship and many basic rights.
The recommendations proposed last week aim to change that. The report, which was written by a commission led by Mr. Annan, calls on the government to end enforced segregation of Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine; allow humanitarian groups full access to the region; and end restrictions on movement that curtail people’s access to work, public services, and religious freedoms. It also says the government should revisit a 1982 citizenship law that categorizes most Rohingya as illegal immigrants.
Human rights advocates, many of whom have criticized the government for its handling of the problems in Rakhine, applauded the report’s suggestions. Yang-hee Lee, the UN’s special human rights envoy to Myanmar, says the fact that Suu Kyi herself commissioned the report gives it additional credence and makes it hard for the government to ignore.
Suu Kyi’s office said on its Facebook page that the attacks were intended to coincide with the release of the report. Whether that is true is difficult to verify, though experts say it seems unlikely to have been a coincidence. Regardless of what sparked the attacks, Dr. Lee says they provide the military a convenient excuse to emphasize security needs over developmental ones and delay the civilian government from implementing the report’s recommendations.
“Now with this escalation of violence in Rakhine, I’m not sure if the government has the will or the power to even discuss which recommendations they’ll accept,” she says. “It’s a real setback for the Rohingya people. They’re in a worse position now and the majority of the people are just stuck.”
Lee adds that if the violence continues, “Rakhine is ripe for another major catastrophe” – and that there is precedent for what such a catastrophe could look like. When nine border guards were killed in a similar attack by Rohingya militants last October, Myanmar security forces responded with a deadly counterinsurgency campaign. Lee led an investigation into the ensuing violence.
A UN report released in February concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity, including rape and the killing of civilians. Human Rights Watch said in its own report that the military burned down more than 1,500 homes between October and December 2016. Tens of thousands have entered Bangladesh since then.
Thomas MacManus, a research fellow at the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, says there is evidence that soldiers have started to follow a similar pattern in response to last week’s attack. On social media, advocates for the Rohingya have reported soldiers killing civilians and burning down houses. Thousands of people have fled to nearby mountains or to the Bangladesh border in search of refuge.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said in a new report that Myanmar’s military had built up its forces in northern Rakhine since the attack. New satellite images show widespread burning in at least 10 areas across the region. The cause of the fires could not be determined, but some occurred in locations where witnesses reported deliberate burning of houses by Burmese soldiers, according to Human Rights Watch.
“This would follow the military’s modus operandi from the past,” Dr. MacManus says of the reports from Rakhine. “The military has learned that they can act any way they want and that nothing is going to happen to them. They’ve learned that there are no restraints.”
Myanmar’s power-sharing arrangement, created by the military junta’s Constitution, prevents Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders from having direct control over the military. Even so, MacManus says Suu Kyi was woefully silent during last year’s counterinsurgency campaign and that she should speak out more against military abuses – echoing common criticism from human rights groups who for years have lauded her as a champion of democracy.
“She is in the perfect position to give moral leadership,” MacManus says.
But the government's response since last week's attacks has already started to draw condemnation. A group identified as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which the government declared a terrorist organization last week, took responsibility for last Thursday’s attack on 25 locations. On Sunday, Suu Kyi’s office said in a Facebook post that authorities were investigating reports that staff members of international organizations had assisted the ARSA. It said biscuits supplied by the World Food Programme had been found at a rebel camp site.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticized Suu Kyi’s office for issuing “irresponsible” statements that could endanger international aid organizations. He also called on Myanmar’s authorities to issue clear instructions to security forces to refrain from using disproportionate force, adding that those who use excessive force should be held accountable.
“The State has a duty to protect those within its territory – without discrimination,” Mr. Al Hussein said Tuesday in Geneva.