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Sunday, October 30, 2016
Chilling Silence Surrounds Rohingya...
For much of last week, the silence was disconcerting. After a series of coordinated attacks on border posts in western Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state left nine soldiers and police dead on Oct 9, a crackdown followed and the hunt for some 400 suspects turned bloody. The violence in the two weeks which followed left a further five officers dead, which is unforgivable, but the crackdown from authorities against the unrecognised Rohingya Muslim minority was more brutal: officially 33 accused insurgents were killed, including several suspects in custody, but given the secrecy there are fears the toll is much higher.
The area was sealed off from outsiders, international aid was denied or severely restricted, and little to nothing was said officially about what was happening in the flashpoint border city Maungdaw or elsewhere in Rakhine state. On Sunday, reports filtered through that security officials had forced about 2,000 Rohingya from their homes in western Myanmar's Kyee Kan Pyin village as part of the crackdown. It was also said 1,000 Buddhist residents had been displaced.
NGOs and the United Nations called for access and information, saying there were allegations of human rights abuses, with unarmed people shot, women and girls raped and assaulted, homes and Korans burned and shops looted. Allegations, it should be noted, that are extremely difficult to corroborate in the circumstances. The World Food Programme, which assists 152,000 people in Rakhine state, said while deliveries were slowly being made, as of Friday 50,000 people had not been reached in weeks.
On Friday, the silence broke with reports from Reuters that dozens of Rohingya women had been raped by groups of soldiers. The accounts from eight women interviewed both on the phone and in person were chilling, with a mother of seven saying her headscarf was removed before four men attacked her and a 15-year-old daughter. A 30-year-old woman also described being knocked off her feet by soldiers and repeatedly raped. "They told me, 'We will kill you. We will not allow you to live in this country,'" she told Reuters.
Senior figures in the Myanmar government denied the accusations, with one going as far as calling the accounts Islamist propaganda. The US State Department responded by saying it had voiced concern to Myanmar's foreign ministry and calling for an investigation which held those responsible to account. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "The Burmese government should ensure a credible inquiry into the Oct 9 violence by inviting UN human rights experts to take part. Rakhine state's ethnic divide is perhaps Burma's biggest fault line. The government's handling of this inquiry is a big test for preventing future violence against the Rohingya and other populations."
One account the government has not denied, however, is the death in custody of Khawrimular, a 60-year-old Rohingya detained on Oct 14 on suspicion of involvement in the earlier attacks. Arrested along with his three sons and two of his brothers, he was described as a community leader yet authorities said he had to be subdued after grabbing a gun while in custody.
He was rendered unconscious and died on the way to hospital. The government has promised an investigation into this death.
Observers are worried this could be the worst violence to hit Rakhine state in the four years since 125,000 people were left displaced, leading to an annual exodus of asylum seekers. Without access it is impossible to say, but it does come at a difficult time as the government of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is still finding its feet and negotiating the balance of power with an army that still holds tremendous sway.
Much criticism has been levelled at Ms Suu Kyi for perceived and real failures to address or in some instances even acknowledge the plight of the Rohingya, considered among the world's most repressed and officially denied citizenship and rights under previous junta rule thanks to enmity that in turn dates back to the colonial era. Some of this criticism is justified, and even in June she told the UN her government would continue the policy of avoiding the term "Rohingya" -- they are seen by many as illegal Bangladeshi migrants. More sympathetically, it should be remembered democracy remains fragile in Myanmar after so many decades of military rule and there are many competing political forces, ethnic minorities and war-torn regions for the government to deal with. This is to say nothing of the men with weapons, money and power who stand to lose from the transition to democracy.
Nearly a year has passed since her election. While Ms Suu Kyi cannot hold the office of president, as a democracy hero and de facto leader her words carry weight. She is no longer an opposition figure but a world leader, and she needs to act as such. For years, her silence on the Rohingya has been disconcerting. In light of the recent violence, it is more troubling still.