Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi under fire as Rohingya crisis escalates in Rakhine

A year after becoming Myanmar's de-facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi is coming under a barrage of international criticism for her failure to end alleged military crimes in the country's northwest.

About 1.1 million people in the state of Rakhine identify themselves as Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority that has long suffered persecution in the Buddhist-majority nation. The group's origins in Myanmar can be traced back to the fifteenth century, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, but Rohingyas have yet to be granted citizenship and remain unable to vote.

International observers have documented the systematic disenfranchisement and discrimination Rohingyas have faced, including government restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education and freedom of movement.

Border Guard Bangladesh personel detain a suspected Myanmar citizen (C), who is suspected by Rohingya escapees of spying for Myanmar, at a refugee camp in Teknaf in southern Cox's Bazar district on November 24, 2016. Dhaka has called on Myanmar to take 'urgent measures' to protect its Rohingya minority after thousands crossed into Bangladesh in just a few days, some saying the military was burning villages and raping young girls.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / AFP / Getty Images

Tensions between Buddhists and Rohingyas have escalated since 2012, fueled by local spates of aggression, including allegations of rape from both sides. The mounting violence between Muslims, Buddhists and security forces in Rakhine has caused thousands of Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring countries including Bangladesh.

In early October, three police posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border were attacked in a large-scale, coordinated onslaught that killed nine police officers and resulted in days of clashes. In a statement, President Htin Kyaw, who acts as a proxy for Suu Kyi, blamed local militant group Aqa Mul Mujahidin (AMM) and called the assaults an attempt to promote extremist Islamic ideology within the Muslim-dominated Rakhine area.

The statement said AMM received funding by Middle Eastern individuals for the assaults, adding that AMM was also affiliated with the Rohingya Solidarity Organization—an armed organisation that was suspected of deadly offensives on state forces during the 1980s and 1990s.

In response to the incursions, military troops with attack helicopters were recently sent into Rakhine. The troops have since been accused of killings, rapes and looting of the Rohingyas, in what's being called the worst episode of government brutality on the group in four years.

But Suu Kyi, a respected human rights activist whose political party The National League for Democracy (NLD) rode to power in elections last November, has remained largely silent on the issue, with her administration rejecting claims of military abuse last Friday.

"The government's response suggests that it either has no control over the still-powerful military, or considers protecting the ethnic minority as too politically charged in light of the country's vocal Buddhist nationalist majority," Ryan Aherin, senior Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said in a note this week.

The crisis in Rakhine was discussed at a closed meeting of the United Nations (UN) Security Council in New York last week, with the U.S. ambassador to the UN expressing concerns that Suu Kyi's government was unable to handle the issue on its own, Reuters said.

Not rational to keep US sanctions on Myanmar: Serge Pun
Not rational to keep US sanctions on Myanmar: Serge Pun

Access to Rakhine is heavily restricted, which prevents accurate reports on the situation, so the U.N. and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have urged the Myanmar government to allow aid agencies and independent journalists to enter and investigate rights violations.

Both the NLD and Suu Kyi's image are now on the line.

"The situation illustrates that the NLD-led government has made little progress towards improving transparency and accountability since it took office in March 2016," Aherin warned.

The government's neglect of meaningful representation of all citizens and enforcement of independent checks and balances across political and military institutions translates into a poor adherence to democratic values, he continued.

This week, China called on "both sides" in Rakhine to exercise restraint and Malaysia may pull out of a soccer tournament it planned to co-host with Myanmar in protest against the Rohingya crisis, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

Critics in the West are now increasingly lashing out against Suu Kyi, whose years of pro-democracy activism made her into an international hero.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is legitimizing genocide in Myanmar and has entrenched the persecution of the Rohingya minority," state crime specialists at Queen Mary University of London said in a statement on Wednesday.

"Despite the fact that this is the most significant test of Suu Kyi's leadership, she has remained remarkably indifferent," the researchers continued. "Her claim that 'we have not tried to hide anything on Rakhine' is utterly disingenuous. Her statements can only be interpreted as denial - a familiar and integral strategy deployed by criminal states to deflect blame."

On Thursday, John McKissick of the UN refugee agency told the BBC that Myanmar's government was seeking the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas from its territory.

Since 2013, HRW has maintained that Burmese authorities were committing crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingyas.

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