The ongoing bloodshed in Rakhine State, where security forces reportedly are engaging in a rising pattern of abuses against Rohingya, seems to be worsening. International human rights groups have warned that violence is escalating, and Kofi Annan, head of an international commission to study conditions in Rakhine State, this week told reporters he was “deeply concerned” with reports of dozens of Rohingya killed in the state in recent weeks, according to the New York Times. Human rights groups have warned that security forces are targeting groups of Rohingya for extrajudicial executions and also are blocking aid shipments to areas of northern Rakhine State. The New York Times reports, “Activists have relayed stories of rapes, arson, targeted killings and other atrocities said to have been committed against the Rohingya there by the army since Oct. 9, when insurgents killed nine police officers in attacks on border posts.” In late November, former UN Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta and Benedict Rogers, a leading Myanmar rights activist, warned that Rakhine State was at risk of descending into ethnic cleansing resembling the past tragedies in Rwanda and Bosnia, among others.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has done little to stop the unfolding violence. Senior generals have said that there are no abuses happening in Rakhine State currently, and Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen a top army general and current vice president, Myint Swe, to investigate the attacks in Rakhine State. Myint Swe headed military intelligence under the former junta, which repeatedly crushed protests, including the 2007 Saffron Revolution. In addition, Aung San Suu Kyi has chastised the international community for fueling division in western Myanmar, claiming that the international community is “drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment” in Myanmar.
There are three lessons we can clearly see from the response, or lack thereof, of the Myanmar government to the rising violence, apparent arson, and forced displacement in Rakhine State. First, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have minimal personal interest in issues related to the Rohingya. During the 2014–2015 campaign season, she rarely spoke about the Rohingya, and when she did so she often downplayed the violence that has occurred in Rakhine State over the past five years. The broadest base of her support comes from the majority ethnic Burmans, and there is little political capital to be gained among most Burmans from advocating for the Rohingya. Since becoming de facto head of the Myanmar government earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi has appointed Annan’s commission but invested little personal time or use of her bully pulpit to address the situation in Rakhine State. Although she said, last spring, that resolving conflict in Rakhine was a priority, in recent weeks she has just said, over and over, that Naypyidaw is in control of the situation in northern Rakhine. Or, she has blamed foreign groups for stirring up tension in Rakhine State. She has continued saying this despite ongoing abuses and significant evidence that Naypyidaw does not have control of the chaos in Rakhine.
On other domestic challenges, the former Nobel laureate has been much more personally engaged, showing that she can indeed command the bully pulpit impressively. Aung San Suu Kyi has been more than willing to use her bully pulpit to address ongoing civil conflict in the north and northeast. It is reasonable to assume that she regards the violence in Rakhine State as less important, less deserving of her attention than the conflict in the north and northeast, as well as many other Myanmar issues.
Second, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government either cannot control the military forces operating in Rakhine State, or they choose not to, perhaps for fear of alienating the army, which retains enormous political influence. There is no evidence, either from published reports or from my own conversations with Myanmar government advisors, that Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders are taking real, concrete steps to scrutinize the actions of security forces in western Myanmar and to end the climate of impunity for forces involved in abuses in Rakhine State. A lack of government control of the military is unsettling; a disinterest in controlling an armed forces that have been accused, for decades, or massive crimes, is an unsettling prospect as well. Placing Myint Swe, regarded as a military hard-liner, as a top investigator into the Rakhine crisis, does not suggest a serious desire to investigate the security forces’ actions.
Third, despite considerable media coverage of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak’s recent speech warning about abuses in Rakhine State, there is actually little evidence other Southeast Asian nations will do anything concrete to stop the bloodshed. Earlier this week, Najib told a crowd in Kuala Lumpur that “enough is enough” and that Aung San Suu Kyi has to take more dramatic action to stop crackdowns on Rohingya. Like most Malaysian Malays, the Rohingya are Muslims, and a sizable group of Rohingya has fled to Malaysia, although they mostly do not have legal status in Malaysia.
But Najib, like other leaders in the consensus-first Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will do little more than offer occasional public statements and possibly meet in private with Aung San Suu Kyi to encourage her to take stronger action to protect rights in western Myanmar. ASEAN’s long history shows that the organization is ill-equipped to do anything concrete about human rights crises, and that is not likely to change now, even though ASEAN has a human rights charter that supposedly obliges member-states to respect rights.
What’s more, Najib (and most other regional leaders) is not exactly a stirring spokesman for respecting rights. His government has presided over a crackdown on civil society and opposition politicians over the past three years. He is, most likely, highlighting the violence in western Myanmar as a way of seeming tough on Muslims’ rights, and distracting domestic attention from his squabbles with former members of Malaysia’s governing coalition, regular large street protests, an ongoing corruption scandal, and other domestic challenges facing his administration.