A Malaysian aid ship carrying 2,300 tons of food and medicine for Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority was met with protests in Yangon on Thursday, a week after UN human rights officials accused the country of likely crimes against humanity during a recent counterinsurgency crackdown.
The Rohingya minority faces official and social persecution in majority-Buddhist Myanmar, where most do not have citizenship. They are frequently considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite living in Myanmar for generations. In November, a senior UN official told The Guardian that Myanmar's "ultimate goal" appeared to be "ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority."
Myanmar officials have denied reports of abuses. Meanwhile, a new Rohingya insurgent group calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin, or the Faith Movement, has sprung up, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group, leading to a brutal counterinsurgency crackdown in Rakhine state.
The crackdown began in October, after attacks claimed by Rohingya insurgents were carried out against guard posts near the border with Bangladesh, killing nine police officers. Since then, UN officials working with refugees in Bangladesh estimate that over 1,000 Rohingya have been killed by the military, and a report released last week suggests elevated levels of murder, rape, and arson against the Muslim minority.
"The Government of Myanmar must immediately halt these grave human rights violations against its own people, instead of continuing to deny they have occurred, and accepts the responsibility to ensure that victims have access to justice, reparations and safety," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a press release.
Many international figures have criticized Myanmar's new leader, former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi for her lack of action on the issue. In December, more than a dozen other Nobel laureates and ten other global leaders penned an open letter on the Rohingya's persecution, saying "it has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies – Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo" – and criticizing the response from Ms. Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor.
"On repeated occasions, in interviews with the foreign media, whether it was The Washington Post or BBC, she actually refuses to even use the term Rohingya," Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, told Al Jazeera. "She refers to them as either Muslims, Rakhine or Bengalis, which is essentially the narrative ... that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh."
The term "Bengali" was echoed by demonstrators at the dock protesting the arrival of the Malaysian aid ship on Thursday.
"We don't mind that they want to support people who are suffering," Buddhist monk U Thuseiktha, one of the protesters, told Reuters. "But we don't want political exploitation of this issue by calling them Rohingya. The name Rohingya doesn't exist."
NGOs in Malaysia, a predominately Muslim country critical of Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya, had hoped to deliver the aid directly to communities in Rakhine, but Myanmar insisted on being a go-between in order to distribute aid equally between Buddhists and Muslims in the state.
"We have to respect Myanmar's sovereignty," Razali Ramli, from the 1Putera Club Malaysia, which helped organize the shipment, told the Associated Press. "We hand over the aid in good faith."
Suu Kyi's government also announced last week that it would investigate the allegations in the recent UN report, despite previously denying reports of abuse.
"Where there is clear evidence of abuses and violations, the government will take necessary measures," Suu Kyi said in a statement.
Independent verification of the human rights abuses will be difficult, however, since the military, which is not controlled by Suu Kyi, has cut off access to Rakhine, as The Guardian reports. Researchers interviewing refugees who have fled to Bangladesh, however, have documented wounds and injuries from clashes with armed forces.
"The attacks against the Rohingya population in the area (killings, enforced disappearances, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, deportation and forced transfer as a result of violence and persecution) seems to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity (as the High Commissioner concluded already in June 2016)," the UN report notes.
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.