Rohingya Crisis: International Action Needed After Aung San Suu Kyi’s Controversial Speech

A televised speech by Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has drawn international attention this week. Suu Kyi refused to criticize Myanmar’s security forces, which is believed to have carried out brutal ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in the country. Facing a barrage of international criticism, what the Myanmar’s de facto leader said was rather ambiguous. While feeling “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” affected by the conflict, Suu Kyi equivocated that she didn’t know that more than 400 thousand Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighbouring country Bangladesh due to human rights violations. Addressing an audience of foreign officials and journalists, she only stated, “We would like to find out why this is happening.” Significantly, Suu Kyi didn’t provide any solution to the crisis.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech wouldn’t become headline news if not for the severity of the Rohingya Crisis. According to an official report by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, numerous Rohingya Muslims are deprived of citizenship and rendered stateless. Myanmar considers those Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh because they have lived in the Rakhine State for decades. The tension between Rohingya Muslims and security forces erupted last August after the Muslim insurgents attacked 30 police posts. Myanmar’s security forces fought back unrelentingly. There is irrefutable evidence that security forces have committed grave human rights violations such as extra-judicial killings, the slaughter of children, rape and the burning of villages.

The Annan Report, released in August, also pointed out that military and police operations have forced 400 thousand Rohingyans to flee across the border. It’s estimated that approximately 40 percent of Rohingya villages are abandoned; however, Suu Kyi has stated that more than 50 percent of villages remain intact. Fifty-year-old Khatun, who is a victim of this scorched-earth policy and now lives in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, told reporters that “the Rakhines and the Hindus, they joined with the military. I watched them coming over the hill, like a team. I knew them, yet they were killing us.” Indeed, inside the refugee camp, Suu Kyi is widely believed to be responsible for this violence.

As we know, Aung San Suu Kyi is a renowned human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. It is under her leadership that Myanmar successfully removed the military junta and braced democracy. Owing to her significant contribution to the country, Suu Kyi won the 2015 elections with a landslide victory and her party took 86 percent of the seats in the Assembly of the Union. However, she is now blowing her chance to actively solve the ethnic cleansing issue. Her speech is not only ambivalent but also disappointing. Amnesty International thinks it to be a “mix of untruths and victim blaming.” For example, Suu Kyi claimed that “all people living in Rakhine state have access to education and health care services.” However, reporters who actually travelled to this place found out that her claim is false. Besides, the Nobel laureate used the word “Rohingya” only once in the entire speech, and the word is used in relation to a terrorist group called ARSA. What she is trying to imply is that those innocent victims should be blamed for their connection with terrorism. In the end, Suu Kyi said that before action is taken the government needs time to investigate the situation and fully understand why the crisis is happening. It is quite peculiar that the leader of the country has little knowledge of the exodus of thousands of minority Muslims.

Nevertheless, it is even more peculiar to witness applause and cheers from the crowds that gathered to watch the live speech on outdoor screens in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. They waved national flags and carried posters of Suu Kyi. In fact, many Burmese maintained that international media has been portraying their leader unfairly and what she was doing is all for the country. However, the crowds also seemed not to fully understand the crisis. A 23-year-old local student told reporters that he thought that the international media needed more knowledge of the Rakhine State, while he also acknowledged that “we don’t know what is the real situation over there.”

Regardless of what the Burmese think, as is mentioned before Suu Kyi’s speech received widespread criticism internationally. Amnesty International accused her of “burying head in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State,” while Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, adopted a harsher tone. He said Suu Kyi is no longer a peace campaigner and has evolved into a full-time politician. Last week, the UN Security Council issued a lowest-order form of statement to show concern about “excessive violence” in Rakhine. It is worth pointing out that China, which is closely tied to Myanmar’s military, also agreed to issue that statement. On the other hand, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in New York that she wanted to hear Suu Kyi offer a viable solution. She emphasized that it is urgent for Myanmar to let international aid come in and allow Rohingya Muslims to return home. However, Bishop’s speech fell short of a detailed proposal of concerted action from international actors.

Luckily, according to a new UN report released on Tuesday, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has increased its operations in Bangladesh’s refugee camps. Temporary shelters and family tents are provided for new arrivals. Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi Government and local Bangladeshis are also willing to support the UNHCR. Many individual Bangladeshis voluntarily transported food and clothes to the camps. However, across the border, restrictions to media and charitable organizations still haven’t been lifted after Suu Kyi’s speech. In her speech, she said the country did not fear international scrutiny. Ironically, only one media trip controlled tightly by the government had been organized in September. Independent visits and interviews are not seen as a possibility for journalists. This is undeniably unusual for a country that deems itself democratic.

The Rohingya Muslims on both sides of the border are suffering greatly from hunger, disease and violence. Suu Kyi’s speech poses a great obstacle to effectively solve the crisis. What is even worse than the crisis itself is the government’s reluctance to face the issue with an appropriate attitude. Regardless of their religion or ethnicity, Rohingya Muslims were and remain to be a crucial part of Myanmar. They have contributed to the country with their hard work for decades and deserve equal rights and treatment like the other Burmese. The government has no reason not to stop the violence immediately and let them return home in safety and dignity. Besides, Al-Qaeda has called for jihadists all over the world to “help” the Rohingya. If Islamic extremism steps in, the situation will definitely be more chaotic and disastrous. As a result, changes must occur in several ways. Global powers must push Myanmar to take actions in a stronger manner. This means that we must go beyond exchanging rhetoric and actually finding ways to stop the crisis in Rakhine state.

The UN should monitor and enforce international law on Myanmar. Military intervention as a means of coercion should be adopted if necessary. Other punitive measures should also be taken if Myanmar still shows no willingness to allow journalists to investigate the situation. International charitable organizations should also be allowed in to help victims suffering from physically or emotionally. Also, Australia, as a powerful neighbour, should do more than ask Suu Kyi for a solution. Political pressures should be applied to let Myanmar know that it is responsible for the crisis and the suffering of the people. If nothing changes, Australia should stop its defence training for Myanmar’s military and re-impose sanctions that was lifted after 2011, when the military rule ended. In addition, Australia should also consider increasing its aid by deploying Australian Defence Force assets, such as amphibious ships. Last but not least, Suu Kyi should inform her people in full detail about what is happening to the Rohingyans. The Burmese support her not because of the speech itself but because of her popularity. The many Burmese who voted for her to be in power deserve to know the truth. Suu Kyi must propose immediate action and a sincere apology to Rohingyans, and also to the rest of her population, instead of a disingenuous speech.