US warns crackdown in Myanmar could inspire violence

Myanmar's de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi says international attention to the plight of the Rohinya fuels resentment between Buddhists and Muslims in the country's northwest.

Photo by: Reuters (Archive)
Photo by: Reuters (Archive)

Ethnic Rakhine men attend a police training course to take part in a civilian force deployed in the north of the Rakhine State in Sittwe, Myanmar, November 15, 2016.

The US government says a security crackdown that has displaced tens of thousands Rohingya Muslims and left an unknown number dead risks radicalising the downtrodden community and stoking religious tensions in Southeast Asia.

Myanmar's military moved in after armed attacks by unknown assailants on police posts along the border with Bangladesh in October. The army crackdown has killed at least 86 people and sent 10,000 fleeing to Bangladesh.

The attacks in Rakhine State were a possible sign that a small number of Rohingya were starting to fight back against persecution by majority Buddhists who view them as illegal immigrants although many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The top US diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, called on Myanmar’s neighbouring countries, such as Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, to resist the urge to stage protests that could further stir religious passions.

A protester stands behind police during a demonstration against what organisers say is the crackdown on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, outside the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia November 25, 2016. (Reuters/archive)

The Somali-born student who launched a car-and-knife attack at Ohio State University this week had reportedly protested on his Facebook page about the killing of minority Muslims in Myanmar.

And last weekend, Indonesian authorities arrested two suspected militants who were allegedly planning to attack the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta.

Former UN chief Kofi Annan visits Rakhine State

Before the latest violence broke out, Myanmar's de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in August formed a commission, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, tasked with trying to solve the Rakhine crisis. Buddhist nationalists denounced the move as foreign meddling.

On a fact-finding visit Friday, the former UN chief said that security operations must not impede humanitarian access.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan talks to reporters as Myanmar government-appointed Chairman of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, during his news conference in government guest house, Rakhine state, Myanmar December 2, 2016. (Reuters)

That's been a repeated demand from the international community, including the United States, but it has made little impact.

The UN World Food Programme said Friday that since Oct 9 it has been able to deliver food or cash to only 20,000 of the 152,000 people who usually receive assistance, and to about 7,000 newly-displaced people.

A Rohingya child reacts to the camera as his mother gives him water in Leda unregistered Rohingya Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. November 22, 2016. (Reuters/archive)

Annan's task has been made considerably harder since fighting broke out.

Suu Kyi created a second body to try to heal the religious divide that has split Rakhine state since deadly sectarian unrest killed more than 100 people in 2012.

Suu Kyi's office said the new commission would investigate the raids on police border posts on October 9 that sparked the deadly military lockdown as well as “international accusations” of army abuses.

Rights groups rejected the new 13-member commission as toothless, noting it includes no Muslims and is led by Vice President Myint Swe, a retired army general formerly blacklisted by the United States.

The US and other nations have called for an independent investigation into the latest violence in Rakhine. 

Activists, belonging to Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch in Asia, have also called for independent probe into Rohingya abuse saying the body set up by Myanmar lacks credibility.

'International attention to the plight of the Rohingya fuels division'

The military's crackdown in Rakhine has also exposed the limits of Suu Kyi's power. The Nobel laureate's party won elections a year ago, but the military still controls key levers of government power, including access to sensitive border regions.

Human rights activists who once lionised Suu Kyi now criticise her for failing to defend the stateless Rohingya.

A demonstrator is seen with a defaced picture of Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi on his phone during a demonstration against what protesters say is Myanmar's crackdown on ethnic Rohingya Muslims, outside Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. (Reuters/archive)

Since winning an historic election last year, she has hardly spoken out on the issue. But during a trip to Singapore this week she gave a rare interview in which she hit out at international criticism.

"I would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability, and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities, instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment," Suu Kyi told the state-owned Channel News Asia.

In northern Rakhine, one of the poorest parts of the country, Muslims outnumber the ethnic Rakhine population.

"In the Rakhine, it's not just the Muslims who are nervous and worried," said Suu Kyi. "The Rakhine are worried too. They are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population, percentage-wise."

The plight of the Rohingya, once characterised by the UN as the world's most friendless people, has attracted the attention of Muslims since a spike in intercommunal violence in Rakhine in 2012 that left hundreds dead and forced more than 100,000 into squalid camps.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled by rickety boats in recent years to countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but those routes have been blocked since a crisis in 2015 when thousands were stranded at sea.

Estimates of the death toll range between dozens and several hundred. Human Rights Watch said on November 21 that satellite imagery showed at least 1,250 buildings have been destroyed.

Arrivals in Bangladesh have told horrifying stories of gang rape, torture and murder at the hands of Myanmar's security forces.

Myanmar has denied allegations of abuse.

Myanmar Rohingya refugee Din Mohammad shows injuries sustained before he fled to Bangladesh in a refugee camp in Ukhyia on November 25, 2016. (AFP/archive)

With journalists barred from the affected area, it's been near-impossible to substantiate reports of rapes and killings by Myanmar soldiers the kind of conduct that has long blighted the military's reputation in ethnic conflicts.

Despite often having lived in Myanmar for generations, most of the country's 1.1 million Rohingya are denied citizenship, freedom of movement and access to basic services such as healthcare and education.

The UN's human rights agency said this week that abuses suffered by the Rohingya may amount to a crimes against humanity, repeating a statement it first made in a June report.

The Rohingya are not among the 135 ethnic groups recognised by law in Myanmar, where many majority Buddhists refer to them as "Bengalis" to indicate they regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has refused scores of Rohingya fleeing the restive state. The country's prime minister said in a recent interview that her nation is already overpopulated and the Rohingya Muslims were not Bangladesh's problem.


TRTWorld and agencies