November, Zaw Lay and his family were hiding in the basement of a friend’s
house in Yekhatchchaung GwaSone village, near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
Two Burmese military helicopters circled overhead, firing indiscriminately at
the terrified villagers huddled below.
“The helicopters [didn’t] see us but
they are firing continuously,” he recently told me over the phone, from a
forest enclave inBangladesh where he
“We don’t [dare] go outside the home, if the helicopter men see us
they will kill us.”
Once the helicopters stopped their strafing, Burmese
soldiers on the ground began burning the village to the ground.
There was chaos
when Zaw Lay fled, and he learned only later that his elderly mother had been
trapped inside a burning building.
“My mom’s dead,” he told me.
Rohingya Muslims like Zaw Lay are a small minority in Buddhist-majority
They are becoming smaller still, thanks to a brutal campaign initiated
in mid-October by the Burmese military.
The spark for the violence came on
October 9, when a Rohingya militia attacked a police outpost in northern
Rakhine province, killing nine officers and seizing weapons and equipment.
military’s harsh reprisal campaign, designed to retrieve every gun stolen
during the initial raid, is believed to have killed hundreds of Rohingya, and
sent around 25,000
more fleeing into Bangladesh in what
Amnesty International has termed “collective punishment
It is the type
of appalling human rights situation that demands a strong voice for tolerance
And Myanmar would appear to have such a figure in its paramount
civilian leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
historic visit to Myanmar in 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Suu Kyi
for showing “unbreakable courage and determination” in her decades-long fight
against the country’s military dictatorship, and in September of this year,
during Suu Kyi’s first visit to the White House, Obama called for a lifting of
U.S. sanctions to reward Myanmar for making democratic progress.
But to the
puzzlement of the world, and to the dismay of the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has been
silent on the military’s recent actions.
Worse than that, her party has
dismissed reports of mass slaughter as mere “fabrications.”
The world has
waited a long time for Suu Kyi to address the Rohingya problem.
She has been
given the benefit of the doubt, out of deference to both her sterling human rights
record and to the complex political landscape she must navigate for civilian
rule to truly triumph over a military that still wields considerable power in
But as the body count continues to mount, there is a dawning suspicion
that there may be no objection forthcoming—that indifference is Suu Kyi’s final
response to a human rights catastrophe unfolding in her country’s borderlands.
The latest reprisals against the Rohingya fit into a long pattern of
For decades Burmese generals, hardline religious leaders, and
politicians have argued that the Muslim Rohingya, who number around one million
people and make up around 2 percent of Myanmar’s population, are Bengali
interlopers intent on stealing the country and making it Muslim.
violence in 2012 led to hundreds of deaths, and forced 150,000 Rohingya to live
in squalid internal displacement camps.
Nonetheless, the situation for many
Rohingya has gotten dramatically worse since the violence began two months ago.
And there is disturbing evidence that the military’s campaign is more sweeping
than previous pogroms.
Matthew Smith, chief executive at Fortify Rights, an NGO focused on
human rights in Southeast Asia, is gathering testimony from Rohingya who have
fled to Bangladesh since October.
“The situation has taken a dramatic turn for
the worse for the Rohingya in the north,” he said.
“We were talking with a
group of people today, conducting interviews.
“In a group of 9 or 10, every
single one had witnessed family members being killed, every single one coming
from different villages.
“Seeing the same tactics employed in disparate
locations indicates the systematic nature of what’s happening.”
The precise nature of the campaign is hard to verify, though Smith
confirmed that many other Rohingya had also mentioned the military’s use of
helicopter gunships against civilians in Yekhatchchaung GwaSone.
The military has blocked rights groups
and independent journalists from getting to the remote border-region where the
violence is taking place.
But witnesses who have fled to Bangladesh, as well as satellite imagery
burned-out Rohingya villages
, tell a chilling story of widespread destruction of civilian
Though the Burmese military has described its actions as limited
counter-insurgency operations to defeat Rohingya terrorists, Abu Siddiq, a
Rohingya teacher, said there was nothing limited about the attack on his
village a little over a month ago.
“They always try to destroy us,” he told me,
in a telephone interview from Bangladesh.
Like other Rohingya refugees quoted in
this piece, he asked to be identified by an unofficial name to avoid military
Even before the attack, Siddiq said, life in Myanmar was impossible.
order to travel outside of his village, he had to receive special government
But papers issued by the police were considered invalid by the
military, and vice-versa, meaning that he was in constant danger of being shot
by someone in uniform who could accuse him of violating the law.
He is worried
about his relatives still caught up in the violence back home.
“How can we live
here?” he asked.
The Burmese military isn’t supposed to be launching assaults on civilian
Last November, Myanmar held its first relatively free and fair
democratic elections in generations.
The National League of Democracy, the
party led by Suu Kyi, triumphed in spectacular fashion over the party of the
military, ending five decades of effective military rule.
Suu Kyi’s party
inherited many challenges: the world’s longest running civil war between the
central government and a constellation of ethnic armed groups; an
underdeveloped economy and education system; a meddling neighbor in China.
the biggest challenge of all was the continued power of the military.
to the Burmese Constitution, the military gets 25 percent of seats in
parliament, controls key government ministries including the national police
and border affairs, and can declare a national emergency and take back power
from the civilian government.
Still, given how much progress had been made in the space of a few
years, there was reason to hope that Suu Kyi would, slowly but surely, triumph
over these obstacles and cement civilian control over government institutions.
She is revered among the Burmese public for serving 15 years of house arrest in
her struggle against military rule, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for her
unceasing advocacy for democracy.
Though Suu Kyi herself was barred by the
constitution from becoming president, she selected Htin Kyaw, a relatively
undistinguished loyalist, to be president, and declared herself “above” the
Her official title is state counsellor, and she is treated like a
head of state when she travels abroad.
She has had more success than anyone at
facing down Burmese generals and is now Myanmar’s undisputed civilian leader.
But “The Lady,” as she is known in Myanmar, has been anything but
steadfast when it comes to the Rohingya.
In a 2013 interview
with the BBC, Suu Kyi refused numerous
opportunities to condemn a group of hardline monks who were spreading hatred
against the country’s Muslims.
Suu Kyi did not object when, before the 2015
election, election authorities decided that Rohingya Muslims would be summarily
denied the right to vote.
Her party even purged its party list
of Muslim candidates, in what was
widely interpreted as an attempt to defuse criticism from the country’s
And still, there was hope that this was mere election posturing, and
that Suu Kyi would act on behalf of the Rohingya if her party won the election.
That hope was quickly dashed; shortly after her party took power, the foreign
affairs ministry advised foreign embassies
to cease using the term “Rohingya,”
which is unpopular among Burmese nationalists because it implies that the
Rohingya are a legimitate ethnic group as opposed to Bengali infiltrators.
“Unfortunately the argument that she’s staying silent or neutral in regards to
Rakhine state based on political reasons has fallen flat,” said Smith of
Rights advocates say that her response to the most recent violence has
been even more dispiriting.
The president’s office called foreign media reports
on the military’s brutality towards Rohingya “fabrications.”
One of the ways
Suu Kyi overturned military rule was to consistently challenge the military’s
account of events, but when it comes to violence against Rohingya, she appears
willing to accept them.
“She knows everything,” said U Zaw Htay
, a spokesman for Suu Kyi, about the military
“The military has been briefing her on every important issue.”
“Her true colors are being shown based on how she thinks of Rakhine
state, and those colors are very concerning,” said Smith.
“She’s not only
failing to prevent atrocities but she’s also denying atrocities are occurring.”
U Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer and activist who has been in and out
of prison for decades thanks to the country’s military, said that he was deeply
disappointed by Suu Kyi’s failures to stick up for Rohingya civilians.
cannot do anything for us, she’s lying around the world,” he said, referring to a trip to Singapore
in which Suu Kyi herself appeared to
dismiss claims of abuse towards Rohingya as “fabrications.”
He said Suu Kyi’s
response also demonstrated how little power the civilian government has
compared to the military:
“Even though she’s head of state, head of country,
she cannot visit Rakhine state,” where the violence is taking place.
State abuse towards Rohingya seems to be continuing.
sources in Bangladesh keep sending me updates (including graphic photos) of
Rohingya men they say have recently been killed in Myanmar, and Smith said he
was also receiving similar reports.
Although the response from Western
governments remains muted, other countries in the region are paying notice.
Muslim-majority neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, have raised the issue
repeatedly with Suu Kyi. Nazib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, said the
attacks against the Rohingya amounted to “genocide
Andrea Gittleman, a program manager for the Center for the Prevention of
Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that, after a proper
investigation, the crimes against Rohingya could amount to genocide.
returned from a trip to Rakhine days before the most recent outbreak of
“Given the history and context and given reports [on the recent
violence], we would be very concerned about the threat of genocide against the
Rohingya,” she said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said his
organization hadn’t yet decided how to classify the Burmese government’s
But in an email he emphasized the way the military had
thrust Suu Kyi into a difficult political situation.
“The intense dislike
directed towards the Rohingya by the general population of Burma makes this
kind of crackdown quite popular domestically,” Robertson wrote.
“[Suu Kyi is]
stuck between a rock and a hard place, with a military that she can’t control
scoring political points by abusing rights of the Rohingya, and Suu Kyi being
asked hard questions about why she can’t do something about it and stand up for
human rights principles.
“So far, she has not handled the situation terribly well.”
In a Whatsapp message, Abu Siddiq, one of the Rohingya refugees in
Bangladesh, was more cutting about Suu Kyi’s handling of the situation.
Aung San Suu Kyi tries to solve the problem of Rakhine State, the problem will
be easily solved.
“But she has not tried [to solve] the problem,” he wrote.
“Without trying to solve the problem, the problem will be solved?