Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi abruptly canceled her plans to attend next week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York amid growing criticism over her failure to condemn the humanitarian crisis tearing apart her native Myanmar and raising the specter of ethnic cleansing there.
The decision comes as the scope of Myanmar’s brutal crackdown on its Rohingya ethnic minority, the world’s fastest-growing human rights disaster, come into sharper focus. An estimated 370,000 Rohingya — fully one-third of that population — have fled the country over the past two weeks alone, as government security forces burn villages, carry out mass rapes, and execute civilians.
The UN’s High Commissioner on Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, has called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Bangladesh’s foreign minister called it genocide. UN Secretary General António Guterres called the situation “catastrophic” today. And al-Qaeda has issued a warning of potential “punishment” to the government of Myanmar in retaliation for the treatment of the mostly Muslim Rohingya.
But Suu Kyi, a onetime global celebrity, has said and done little since the most recent wave of violence began. While she has no legal power to stop it — she is the de facto civil leader, but the military control several ministries — she is widely seen as having a strong moral perch. Her silence on the plight of the Rohingya has bewildered a world that once saw her as Myanmar’s Nelson Mandela — and a symbol of peaceful civil disobedience and the power of protest.
Now that reputation lies in tatters, and an entire people are facing an uncertain future.
Everything we know comes from escapees and satellite images
The recent violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state began on August 25, when a ragtag assemblage of violent Rohingya insurgents attacked a handful of Myanmarese police outposts, reportedly killing 12.
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told reporters Wednesday that the military response hasn’t been to track down the insurgents, but instead to target the entire Rohingya community. (Suu Kyi, for her part, has only condemned the violence of the insurgents, not of her military. While she cannot stop them, she can speak out about their actions.)
Satellite imagery revealed Wednesday by Human Rights Watch shows entire villages apparently burned to the ground.
“It’s now clear from our research that a massive human rights and humanitarian crisis is underway,” Sifton said, adding that the country’s military has carried out “a wave of violence that bears the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.”
An estimated 80 percent of the fleeing Rohingya are believed to be women and children. “Unless the international community acts now, all that will be left for the Rohingya in Burma will be the bodies of the dead and the ruins of their homes,” Tirana Hassan of Amnesty International wrote in a searing op-ed in Tuesday’s Washington Post.
There is no humanitarian access to Myanmar’s Rakhine state. No independent observers, and no journalists, are allowed in. That means the numbers of fleeing refugees may be far higher: Human Rights Watch says the real number could be anywhere from 310,000 to as high as 400,000.
The situation on the ground, meanwhile, is worsening by the day
Sarah Margon, Human Rights Watch’s Washington director, said there is evidence that the Myanmar military is laying down border land mines to prevent the Rohingya from returning to their homes.
Stories carried by Rohingya escaping across the Naf River to Bangladesh are filled with horror. Town after town, Sifton said, were given the opportunity to flee by the Myanmar military. They were shot — and some were killed — as they ran.
"They are beating us, shooting at us and hacking our people to death," Hamida Begum, a refugee, told CNN.
The Guardian sent a reporter to Bangladesh who took testimony from those huddled there, like this harrowing account from 65-year-old Kabir Ahmed, a former rice farmer:
They threw the children into the river. My three-year-old granddaughter, Makarra, and Abul Fayez, my one-year-old grandson. I was hiding on the south side of the river. They gathered everyone together and told them to walk away. Then they shot them. We were on hills, hiding behind trees. In the evening, they collected all the bodies on the river bank, dug into the sands and burned them. It happened 40 metres away from me, on the other side of the river. They are buried two to three metres from the riverside.
The UNHCR has now said it plans to create a refugee camp in Bangladesh that can house 500,000, Margon said Wednesday.
Violence against Rohingya has become common in Myanmar
Bangladesh was already home to tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees. That’s because this newest wave of violence follows a pattern that is all too familiar to regional watchers.
Last October a similar attack on Myanmarese security officers led to a similar, indiscriminate, and horrifying crackdown on the general Rohingya population. Stories emerged quickly of rape and murder and burned villages. A report issued by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that one in every two women interviewed said they had been raped. The ensuing military attacks on the Rohingya led some 66,000 community members to flee to Bangladesh. Many remained, and have been living in squalid refugee camps.
It’s a story that has repeated itself every few years. In 2015, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum sent a delegation to the region that came back warning the groundwork was being laid for genocide. “We saw firsthand the Rohingya’s physical segregation, which has resulted in a modern form of apartheid, and the devastating impact that official policies of persecution are having on them,” the resulting report explained. “We left Burma deeply concerned that so many preconditions for genocide are already in place.”
And in 2012, massive attacks on the Rohingya minority left 150,000 internally displaced within Myanmar. In the 1990s, some 250,000 Rohingya fled violent attacks for neighboring countries.
These waves of violence extend all the way back to 1982, when the country’s military junta stripped the Rohingya of citizenship, rendering them a stateless people
“They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid,” one refugee, Khalid Saifullah, told the New York Times Wednesday. Saifullah fled decades ago for Pakistan.
The downfall of an icon
Throughout the recent violence, there has been an eerie silence from the woman once known for her stoicism and her selfless pursuit of freedom and democracy for her country. She was celebrated by pop culture icons, like Bono of U2, and glorified in a film that narrated her sacrifice. Suu Kyi gave up a life with her husband and sons rather than risk leaving Myanmar and never being allowed to return.
Now she may find herself unwelcome elsewhere.
Suu Kyi’s decision to skip the UN meetings next week has been blamed on the insurgency. Her spokespeople have told the press she will address the nation, and the world, next week in a televised speech. “One [reason] is the current situation in Rakhine state,” a Myanmar government spokesperson told the press, explaining the decision. “We have terrorist attacks and also there are many works on public safety and humanitarian works.”
Secondly, he noted, perhaps obliquely referencing the ominous threats from al-Qaeda, “[W]e have received reports that there are possibilities of terrorist attacks in our country."
But many will surely note that Suu Kyi’s decision not to visit New York comes at a moment when the world has shifted from adulation to condemnation of her actions.
Though she has little control over the military’s actions, her silence on the destruction of the Rohingya community has led to petitions and op-eds the world over for the return of her Nobel Prize. And Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel peace laureates have, one by one, begun to beg her to speak. Those who have protested her silence include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban for her work on girls’ education.
"If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” Tutu wrote in a message posted to Twitter last week.