In the span of two weeks, a military crackdown in Myanmar has produced over 3000 deaths and 500,000 refugees.
According to recent reports dating back to mid-2016 from the United Nations, the southeast Asian country of Myanmar has experienced a spike in violence resulting in what the international community suspects is a genocide.
Myanmar is comprised of an 88 percent Buddhist religious majority. The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, make up a 4 percent religious minority that have faced religious persecution for centuries within Myanmar. The Rohingya are relegated to the Rakhine State within Myanmar, an area made up of various religious and ethnic minorities, and make up a total population of around 1.3 million in Myanmar.
What most believe to have sparked recent events was the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya insurgent group. In response to centuries of religious persecution and discrimination against the Rohingya people by the government and the Buddhist population, the ARSA in Oct. 2016 began attacking police outposts and staging riots. The ARSA has stated their goal is to create a separate democratic Muslim state specifically for the Rohingya people, and they claim no affiliation with terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
In response, the Myanmar military began a severe series of crackdowns in January 2017 against all Rohingya people, resulting in the military committing acts of torture, gang rape and extrajudicial killings against the Rohingya people, as well as burning down dozens of Rohingya villages.
Between January to August, an estimated 400,000 Rohingya people were displaced and became refugees, with a death toll of around 1000 Rohingya at the hands of its military forces. The violence against the Rohingya people has spiked exponentially between late August and early September. In the span of two weeks there is now a total estimated 900,000 Rohingya refugees and a death toll of over 4000 Rohingya people per Reuters India.
Countries such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka have seen a massive influx of Rohingya refugees in that two week span, Bangladesh alone is being forced to accommodate more than 500,000 refugees as they await permanent relocation, per BBC News. However, hundreds of thousands more are trapped without on the border between the Rakhine State and Bangladesh under threat of violence from locals in either country should they enter. They are largely without shelter or long-term food supplies and are being forced to attempt escape by sea.
The international community at large is outraged by the mounting evidence of human rights violations, the UN calling for a formal investigation into what it suspects is a genocide against the Rohingya.
Up until this point, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and the country’s current de facto leader, has had a strong positive standing in the international community. The recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal as well as the Nobel Peace Prize for her pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, Suu Kyi was called upon by the UN to order a ceasefire from her military and to allow for an investigation into the numerous reports of human rights violations.
Shockingly, Suu Kyi has remained mainly silent in response to the violence against the Rohingya people and has denied the UN permission to conduct its investigation. In the wake of hundreds of photos and video evidence documenting the Myanmar military and Buddhist militants systematically attacking and wiping out entire villages, Suu Kyi has denied the existence of a genocide in Myanmar in an interview with BBC News. She has remained neutral in assigning blame to either side of the violence, and claims that the Rohingya people would be welcomed back into the country.
Suu Kyi’s lack of action to resolve the crisis has garnered much criticism, many calling for her Noble Peace Prize to be revoked. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in an open letter to Suu Kyi: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
It should be noted that Suu Kyi’s lack of action to stop the military is a complex issue. Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s state counsellor, not its president. This position was created specifically for her, as the country’s constitution does not allow its presidents to have a foreign spouse as she does. While Suu Kyi is currently working to rewrite Myanmar’s constitution to implement democratic reforms, the current iteration of the constitution does not allow her any substantial power over the military in terms of defense, police and border affairs. In light of this, the bulk of criticism aimed at her is not her lack of action, but her lack of vocal opposition, refusal to acknowledge the existence of the crisis and refusal to cooperate with the UN.
It was announced Sept. 13 that Suu Kyi would not be attending the UN General Assembly being held Sept. 20 in New York City to address the Rohingya crisis. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated his discontent with the news in a subsequent BBC interview.
“I would expect that the leader of the country would be able to contain it, and would be able to reverse the situation,” said Guterres. “She has a chance, she has a last chance, in my opinion, to do so… If she does not reverse the situation now, then I think the tragedy will be absolutely horrible, and unfortunately then I don’t see how this can be reversed in the future.”