Aung San Suu Kyi is an international icon; a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Her years of house arrest made her a symbol of peaceful resistance around the world. However, one year after the world celebrated her party’s historic victory at the 2015 elections, it seems things are only getting worse for the country’s most vulnerable.
The Rohingya population is one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Not officially recognised on Myanmar’s list of 135 official ethnic groups, the group is denied citizenship under the restrictive 1982 Citizenship Law introduced by General Ne Win, effectively making them stateless. The government recognises the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and the diplomats have been warned against even using the term Rohingya to refer to the group.
Since the beginning of October, alarming reports have been emerging from Rakhine State, home to the majority of the Rohingya population. On 9 October, an attack on three police outposts in Maungdaw District killed nine security officers and was immediately blamed on the Rohingya. In response, state security forces surged into Maungdaw and launched a violent crack down. Despite limited media access, reports continue to surface of killings, violence, arson and rape.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the escalating situation has been less severely lacking. Since August, two different investigation commissions have been launched, but both have been criticised for being 'toothless'. Humanitarian assistance to the northern villages of Rakhine has been restricted and access for journalists is limited. In response to allegations of homes being razed, the Ministry of Information blamed the Rohingya villagers, claiming that they had burned them down themselves.
One foreign journalist who reported on allegations of rape of Rohingya women by local security forces claims she was fired from the local English language newspaper, the Myanmar Times, as a result reporting on 'dozens of rapes' of local women by members of the security forces. In response to the claims, the official in charge of the investigation into the 9 October attack in Rakhine denied the possibility of rape because Rohingya women 'are very dirty'.
The United Nations estimates 30,000 Rohingya have been displaced to date, with approximately 10,000 fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. This adds to the estimated 160,000 who already live in internally displaced person camps inside the country in appalling conditions. Refugees arriving in Bangladesh are telling harrowing accounts of abuse by state forces.
While this is certainly not the first time that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya has prompted outrage in the international community, it's the first major outbreak of violence since Aung San Suu Kyi’s historic election victory. It seems ironic that a woman famed for her peaceful resistance to oppression is continuing a legacy of oppression in her own country.
A chance for ASEAN?
Although renowned for its preference for non-interference in sovereign affairs of its members, some have been calling for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to become involved to address the escalating violence.
For one, Malaysia has been calling for Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN to be reviewed. This week the Prime Minister Najib Razak led a protest at which he labelled the treatment of the Muslim minority a genocide and described it an insult to Islam. Malaysia has been vocal in the past, while fellow Muslim-majority ASEAN-member Indonesia has also seen protests over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya more recently.
Malaysia is home to approximately 150,000 refugees, around 90% of which are originally from Myanmar and about 55,000 of whom identify as Rohingya. While Malaysia provides some escape, it has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and thus refugees living in Malaysia have the same rights as illegal foreign workers.
Some argue that Najib Razak’s outcry over this issue mainly comes from a desire to distract from domestic problems and ingratiate himself to voters. Whatever the reason, however, it's refreshing to hear someone speaking out within ASEAN.
ASEAN is fond of regional solutions to regional issues, such as trafficking and climate change. While one does not need to look any further than last year’s sinking of a boat carrying 800 migrants to see how this is also a regional issue, it's highly doubtful many of the bloc’s members will favour setting any precedent on assisting the Rohingya. Too many members would not wish international attention to stray too close to their own internal affairs.
Although so many voices are now calling for an end to the violence, the Rohingya have sadly heard this all before. Those who had last year’s election would herald a change to the human rights situation in Myanmar have been sorely disappointed. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on this issue is deafening.
Caitlin McCaffrie is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.