BETH MCLAUGHLIN WRITES – Oh, Myanmar––until recently, a symbol of hope, but the once-pariah state has fallen again. In 2010, the country had shaken off its military leadership and was charting a path towards democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an activist with the National League of Democracy, won elections in 2015 to become the State Counsellor––the de facto ruler of the country. While sectarian violence since 2012 drew repeated condemnation from the United Nations for possible crimes against humanity, matters came to a head in August 2017. This is when the Burmese military launched a “counter-insurgency” operation to rid Rakhine State of its Rohingya inhabitants. The indiscriminate campaign against the Muslim minority in the Buddhist-majority state is widely believed to constitute genocide, although French President Emmanuel Macron remains one of the few prominent leaders to have categorically used the word.
Myanmar has ordered restricted access to international actors and organizations in an attempt to cover up these actions. The U.N. Special Rapporteur, Médecins Sans Frontières, and other international humanitarian organizations have been barred from entering the country. Myanmar has most recently drawn international condemnation for its treatment of two Reuters journalists. Court proceedings for the reporters, imprisoned since December, began on Tuesday. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in the process of investigating a mass killing of 10 Rohingya men by Buddhist villagers and Burmese troops. Reuters has since published an extensive article on the September 2nd killing.
The two journalists were arrested after attending a meeting with two police officers. At a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday, the U.S., Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Kazakhstan called for the release of the reporters. Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UN, Hau Do Suan, replied that the reporters were arrested for possessing confidential documents, not for reporting a story.
The two reporters have been in prison since December. PEN America, a nonprofit which supports freedom of the press, announced that the journalists will be honored with its Freedom to Write Award. The award, given annually since 1987, focuses on journalists and writers imprisoned on account of their work. Thirty seven of the forty two recipients have since been released, something PEN America’s director Suzanne Nossel says can be partly attributed to the award’s potential to elevate a case’s diplomatic profile.
Since the Burmese military began counter-insurgency operations in August, 690,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, telling of a terror campaign waged by the military to ethnically cleanse Rakhine Province. What Myanmar calls a counter-insurgency push, the UN says has all “the hallmarks of genocide.” Credible reports of burned villages, mass murder, and systematic rape by the army and villagers continued throughout 2017, unabated by any restraining words on the part of the country’s de facto leader, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
However, Myat Thu, a member of the National League of Democracy, bemoaned the fact that almost no one in Myanmar is willing to speak out on behalf of the plight of the Rohingya. The NLD was co-founded by Suu Kyi to challenge the military junta that ruled the country until 2010. Myat Thu, a practicing Muslim, says the party’s failure to speak up in support of human rights is due in large part to Suu Kyi’s failure to criticize the military’s actions.
Trouble has long trailed the Rohingya minority. While many have lived in the Rakhine province for hundreds of years, British administrators encouraged South Asian immigration to Burma during colonial times. The independence struggle in the 1960’s took on an anti-Muslim, anti-foreigner tinge that remains potent in Burmese politics. Denied citizenship under a 1982 law, the Rohingya remain effectively stateless and have been targets of sectarian violence since 2012, with tens of thousands already internally displaced. Suu Kyi initially asked for “space” to build trust in the state before addressing long-running hatreds, but in 2016 her government banned the very word Rohingya. The new term, “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine State,” may have been well-intentioned, but it is a ban that Myat Thu says has served to squash discussion of the current crisis even in private settings.
Bangladesh missed a recent UN deadline to begin repatriation of refugees to Myanmar, citing difficulties with compiling a list of refugees. Since then, Bangladesh has agreed to allow UN oversight of the repatriation process in order to ensure that all repatriation is voluntary. Many refugees do not want to return to Myanmar until guarantees can be made for their safety. Even in the relative safety of Bangladesh, refugees face terrible conditions. Disease is rampant, aid insufficient, and flood season is at hand. It seems progress may be a long time coming.