Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He is a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, and author of three books on Burma, including Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N Secretary-General, said yesterday that Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s de facto head of government and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has a “last chance” to stop the violence against the country’s Muslim Rohingya people, when she addresses the nation tomorrow. He has previously described the tragedy unfolding on Burma’s border with Bangladesh as “catastrophic”, and the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights calls it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
They are right. The international reputation of Suu Kyi, the woman who won the hearts of the world as she endured years of house arrest in her courageous struggle for democracy, is now hanging by a thread. However, we must look beyond Suu Kyi at who is really responsible for this horror, who has the power to stop it, and what action the international community must now take.
Although people understandably look to Suu Kyi to speak out against the slaughter and displacement of thousands of people, she does not have the power to stop it. Under the constitution drafted by the military in 2008, she has no control over the army. Indeed, it prevents her even being President, despite winning a landslide victory two years ago in the country’s first credible elections for a quarter of a century. It was only a clever move on her part that a new position of ‘State Counsellor’ was created for her, making her the de facto head of government with a close ally nominated to be President. But even though she leads the civilian government, the constitution gives the army direct control of three key ministries: home affairs, border affairs and defence – the departments most directly engaged in the current crisis.
The one person in Burma with the power to stop the ethnic cleansing is the army’s Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. He alone has the authority to order his soldiers to stop shooting, killing and burning villages.
It may be that Suu Kyi is working for a solution behind-the-scenes, albeit with limited room for manoevre, and one has to hope that she is. Certainly, she should at least work to open access for international humanitarian aid, human rights monitors and media. She should also take urgent steps to revive the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, which she established under the chairmanship of Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General Their report, released on 25 August, offers the best way forward for addressing the decades-long plight of the Rohingyas and resolving tensions with their Buddhist Rakhine neighbours. It was disastrous that a small armed Rohingya group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) chose to launch attacks on Burmese police posts within hours of the report’s release, precipitating the Burma Army’s horrendously disproportionate response.
But to secure an end to the carnage, international pressure must be focused on Min Aung Hlaing. It is astonishing, given the comments of both the UN Secretary-General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that the Security Council has so far failed to act. The United Kingdom has, to its credit, initiated two Security Council discussions, the second of which resulted in a statement, but no more than that. The Security Council should now look at specific actions: a global arms embargo, a targeted visa ban against members of the military, and carefully targeted sanctions, not against the country but against military-owned enterprises.
The European Union has so far been even more of a failure, offering little meaningful action beyond humanitarian aid. Its arms embargo – already in place – should be extended to apply to all equipment that could be used by the military.
While the United Kingdom has led discussions at the UN, and the Foreign Secretary has spoken out, several basic steps have so far been missed. The Minister of State responsible, Mark Field, has been almost silent, beyond responding to an Urgent Question in the House of Commons. He should be more vocal. His defence is likely to be that he is working through diplomatic channels and does not wish to “grandstand”, and that may be so. But there comes a point when ministers need not only to act but be seen to be acting, especially in the face of ethnic cleansing. At a minimum, the Foreign Secretary or the Minister of State should issue a formal statement, condemning the atrocities and outlining the United Kingdom’s plan of action. They should call in the Burmese ambassador – the most basic of diplomatic reproaches. And Britain should suspend its current programme of training with the Burma Army, as 157 Parliamentarians have called for. I used to favour engaging with the military on human rights, at a time when Burma was opening up. But to do so with a military engaged in what some international experts suggest could amount to genocide is not dissimilar to training the Wehrmacht in human rights during the Holocaust.
A humanitarian disaster now confronts us. As many as 400,000 people have been displaced – and the number rises every day. Thousands have been killed. Many more will die if they don’t receive food, medicine and shelter. Bangladesh cannot be expected to meet this challenge alone and unaided. Britain must lead the way in providing a humanitarian response to this catastrophe, while at the same time working for an end to the military offensive and for a just, political solution.
This crisis is not new. The Rohingyas have faced decades of persecution, marginalization and dehumanisation. Indeed, they have been described as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Despite existing in Burma for many generations, a new Citizenship Law introduced in 1982 stripped them of their citizenship rights, rendering them stateless. The Burmese government, and many in society, claim they are illegal Bengali immigrants. Yet Bangladesh does not accept them, and while accounts of their history vary, the fact that they have lived in Burma for generations is undeniable. When I visited Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2008, their conditions were already miserable. I will never forget the words of one Rohingya: “Burma says we are Bengali and should go back to Bangladesh; Bangladesh says we are Burmese and should return to Burma. Will someone tell us where we belong? We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake”.
Nor is this Burma’s only human rights crisis. A more forgotten military offensive has been underway against the predominantly Christian Kachin in northern Burma for the past six years, and attacks on the Shan and other ethnic minorities have intensified recently. Over 100,000 are displaced as a consequence. Despite Burma’s fragile transition to democracy, the military has continued to commit crimes against humanity with impunity.
There are moral and humanitarian reasons to act. But it is also in our own interests to prevent this escalating further. Almost ten years ago I became concerned that the dehumanisation of the Rohingyas could lead to their radicalisation. I remember sitting in a dark, dank flat in East London with Rohingya refugees, and I asked if they shared that fear. They nodded, with tears in their eyes. They were moderate, good, decent people who had fled for their lives and who continued to show a courageous commitment to Burma’s democracy movement. They campaigned for Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest. But they told me: “It is our biggest fear. If our people continue to be persecuted, if they have no friends in the world, they are vulnerable to radicalisation”.
Even if only a small proportion of Rohingyas falls prey to radicalism, their cause is already being hijacked by Islamists from elsewhere. In much the same way as the injustices in Palestine and Kashmir, or indeed ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, have been deployed as recruiting sergeants for Islamism, the plight of the Rohingyas is beginning to attract the attention of radical groups in Britain and around the world. Some extremists already call for jihad against Burma. Failure on the part of Britain and the West to act – and be seen to act – will only fuel this further.
After Rwanda, Darfur, Srebrenica and Kosovo, each time leaders wrung their hands and said: “Never again”. Now is not a time for hand-wringing. It is time to act, otherwise it will be “Never again” all over again.