SINCE the beginning of political liberalisation reforms in 2011, Myanmar has been tense due to an unwarranted uptick in extreme Buddhist nationalism, and phenomenal rise in the frequency of anti-Muslim hate speeches. Analysts had long been warning that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslims would lead to homegrown militancy as well as support from international terrorists. Yet international community displayed apathy. The UN acknowledges that Myanmar’s army “may have committed ethnic cleansing”. A last year’s anti-Rohingya security crackdown in Maungdaw, invoked a UN report on human rights violations by security forces that indicated crimes against humanity. This report UN documented “mass gang-rape, killings – including infants and young children – brutal beatings, and disappearances”.
While dynamics at play in Rakhine are mostly driven by local fears and grievances, the current crisis has led to a broader spike in anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, raising anew the spectre of deadly communal violence, not only in Rakhine state but across the country. This has further amplified fears that the situation is spinning out of control. Bangladesh and India—have displayed a hostile attitude towards fleeing victims of violence. Turkey’s foreign minister has urged Bangladesh to open its doors for Rohingya Muslims and offered to bear their expenses. Mevlut Cavusoglu said on September 02, “If Bangladesh opened its doors for Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar, Turkey was ready to cover their expenses”. “We have also mobilized the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. We will hold a summit on Arakan [Rakhine state] this year. We need to find a decisive solution to this problem,” he added.
Leader of Myanmar, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is under intense criticism about her indifference over the plight of the Rohingyas. The arrival of Suu Kyi as a genuine political force through elections last year had raised expectations that a solution could come by. So far, she has only been a disappointment. She is one of the few people with the mass appeal and moral authority to swim against the tide on the issue. Myanmar’s current political system is a power sharing arrangement between the military and the elected political parties. Defenders of Suu Kyi say she has limited ability to control Myanmar’s notoriously abusive military, which is effectively independent of civilian oversight. Luke Hunt in his September 07 piece, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Escalates”, reports: in ‘The Diplomat’ commented: “With another humanitarian crisis beckoning, Suu Kyi has done little to curb her military from (use of) excess force… In Rakhine, stories of children being shot at point blank range, women raped, and satellite photos clearly showing swathes of villages ablaze have become the stuff of daily headlines.”
Growing crisis threatens worsening of Myanmar’s diplomatic relations, particularly with Muslim majority countries. Malaysian Foreign Minister has questioned Suu Kyi’s silence. “Very frankly, I am dissatisfied with Aung San Suu Kyi,” adding, “[Previously] she stood up for the principles of human rights. Now it seems she is doing nothing.” Indonesia’s Foreign Minister met Suu Kyi as well as Myanmar’s army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw on September 04, in a bid to pressure the government to do more to alleviate the crisis. “This humanitarian crisis has to stop immediately,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo commented. The Maldives has also announced on September 03 that it has severed all trade ties with the country until the government of Myanmar takes measures to prevent the atrocities being committed against Rohingya Muslims. Iranian Foreign Minister added: “International action crucial to prevent further ethnic cleansing – UN must rally.” There were also protest rallies in Russia’s Chechnya region. In Pakistan also people took to streets on September 08, earlier its foreign ministry had issued a strong statement urging for ending violence against hapless Rohingyas.
Aung San Suu Kyi made her first public comments on the fate of her country’s persecuted Rohingya minority on September 06. She claimed during a phone conversation with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a “huge iceberg of misinformation” about the Rohingya crisis was being distributed to benefit “terrorists.” She added her government was fighting to ensure “terrorism” didn’t spread over the whole of Rakhine state. And that her government was already working to protect the rights of the Rohingya. “We know very well, more than most, what it means to be deprived of human rights and democratic protection…So we make sure that all the people in our country are entitled to protection of their rights”, Suu Kyi said, according to a publicly released transcript of her call. Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs has expressed its concerns over reports of increasing number of deaths and forced displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and urged its government to take action to ensure their safety.
“Such reports, if confirmed, are a source of serious concern and anguish on the eve of Eidul Azha,” the statement said on September 03. The foreign ministry has urged authorities in Myanmar to investigate reports of massacre, and hold those involved accountable and take necessary measures to protect the rights of Rohingya Muslims. In line with its consistent position on protecting the rights of Muslim minorities worldwide, the ministry assured that “Pakistan will work with the international community in particular the OIC to express solidarity with Rohingya Muslims and to work towards safeguarding their rights”.
As the Rohingya crisis attract global attention, Al-Qaeda in Yemen has called for retaliatory attacks against Myanmar while the Afghan Taliban have urged Muslims to “use their abilities to help Myanmar’s oppressed Muslims”. According to Luke Hunt: “One senior Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen has called for attacks on Myanmar authorities in support of the Rohingyas. It was Khaled Batarfi, who urged Muslims in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Malaysia to raise arms in support of their Rohingya Islamic brethren and go to war against what he says are the enemies of Allah. ‘So spare no effort in waging jihad against them and repulsing their attacks, and beware of letting down our brothers in Burma,’ he said in a video message, released by Al-Qaeda’s al-Malahem media foundation”. A legitimate struggle for political rights within Myanmar is taking a dangerous direction, it may be at the threshold of getting hijacked—and thus getting delegitimised.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.