More than a dozen Nobel Laureates have written an open letter to the UN Security Council warning that Rohingya Muslims are victims of genocide. But one Nobel Laureate, an international human rights idol, refuses to be moved by the plight of these people, despite dire warnings of a tragedy “amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” That Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, happens to be state counselor and de facto civilian leader of Myanmar (formerly Burma).
Suu Kyi will not even use the term Rohingya. Instead, she calls them either Muslims or Bengalis, thereby attempting to legitimize the false narrative that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“Show me a country that does not have human rights issues,” Suu Kyi said at a press conference in October 2016, referring to reports of the miserable conditions under which Rohingya Muslims live.
This gives the impression that what the Rohingya face is some minor human rights issue that can be solved by the intervention of courts or government agencies, while what they facing is systematic persecution. The Rohingya, who form nearly two percent of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist population, are excluded from the official list of ethnic minorities and remain without citizenship and are denied freedom of movement, access to education, health care and the ownership of property. There are restrictions on their movement. Many of the more than one million Rohingya who were gradually denied citizenship and disenfranchised ahead of the 2015 election still do not have adequate identity papers.
On top of all this is the violence to which Rohingya Muslims are subjected from time to time. Violent campaigns in 1978 and in the early 1990s drove hundreds of thousands of people into Bangladesh. UN and human rights organizations have pointed out that such violence has all the hallmarks of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, as well as of the ethnic cleansing in Sudan’s western Darfur region and in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The religious violence that in 2012 hit Rakhine state, where a majority of Rohingya Muslims lives, was particularly brutal. More than 120,000 people had to leave their homes. They are still languishing in grim displacement camps. They are not allowed to leave the squalid encampments, where they live in piecemeal shelters with little access to food, education and healthcare.
Things took a turn for the worse after a group of Rohingya militants attacked police outposts in the north of Rakhine state in October 2016. Militants killed nine people setting off a military crackdown.
Of course, the Myanmar government has denied allegations that its soldiers committed rape and arson, but Amnesty International says atrocities committed by troops could amount to crimes against humanity. It is as though the security forces in Myanmar are using the killings of nine border guards as an excuse for a brutal crackdown, according to John McKissick, an official of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Meanwhile, some 70,000 Rohingyas have fled to makeshift camps. But this does not appear to be end of the story if you go by what officials in Myanmar say about the October attack. For example, a top leading official has compared the incident to Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America. The Rohingya have already suffered enough. The last thing they wish is to be treated as an enemy in Myanmar’s version of the “war on terror”. We have seen how in the post-9/11 era, some states at odds with their Muslim minority populations are using or misusing the threat of terrorism to mask their own oppressive treatment of minority groups. Human rights groups should be particularly alert to this danger.