How many lives will it take for the international community to act?
by Tun Khin
Tun Khin is President of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya are fleeing for their lives as the Burmese military engages in a scorched earth policy against Rohingya civilians. My organisation, Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, has confirmed more than 1,000 deaths so far, but the figure is probably much higher. More than 10,000 homes have been burned or destroyed, as have shops and businesses. The military is systematically going from village to village, looting and destroying everything. They leave nothing behind. There is nothing for Rohingya to return to.
The question I am asked over and over again by my Rohingya brothers and sisters in Burma is, how can this be allowed to happen again?
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has described what is happening now in Rakhine State, Burma as predicted and preventable. History is repeating itself, but on a more horrific scale.
Last October, attacks on police stations by a new armed Rohingya organisation, now calling itself the Arakan (Arakan is another name used for Rakhine State) Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), triggered a major military operation in which hundreds were killed, villages were destroyed, and mass rape of Rohingya women took place. The United Nations described what took place as possible crimes against humanity, and the Human Rights Council established a Fact Finding Mission to investigate. The government of Burma is refusing to allow them into the country.
It was always feared that more attacks by ARSA would lead to a new offensive by the military, and that is what happened on August 25. As in 2016, the military offensive is not targeting ARSA, it is targeting civilians, with mass killings of civilians and destruction of civilian property.
We had hope that when a new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016, things would change. Instead, she kept all the laws and policies which oppress us in place. She even kept in place restrictions on aid to Rohingya living in camps since their homes were destroyed by attacks in 2012. Those restrictions kill children and leave others stunted and malnourished.
One positive step by the government was the establishment of a commission chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. However, it excluded any Rohingya from being members and had a limited mandate, not being allowed to look at human rights violations last week. At times, it seemed like a delaying tactic and was used as an excuse by the government for delays in changing policy and refusing to allow in the UN investigators. Last week, it did put forward some positive proposals, which the government accepted.
The situation of the Rohingya in Burma can be resolved if the political will is there. It won’t be easy but it can be done.
However, at the same time as Aung San Suu Kyi was talking about implementing the recommendations, her office and government were doing the opposite of what the report recommended, using social media and state media to whip up fears and tensions against Rohingya. Her government has even gone so far as to imply the UN and other international aid agencies are helping what the government called “extremist Bengali terrorists”. Stirring up pre-existing allegations some Rakhine nationalists have made in this way puts aid workers at risk of attacks and risks stopping delivery of life-saving aid to vulnerable people, including tens of thousands of children.
When the military launched its operation against us in October 2016 instead of trying to protect us, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government launched a propaganda offensive defending the military and denying human rights violations were happening. Flashing “Fake Rape” signs were on her Facebook page and website. The UN later confirmed the most horrific details of mass rape of Rohingya women.
Aung San Suu Kyi used to be our only hope for changing policies and attitudes towards the Rohingya. With that hope gone, we looked towards the international community for help, but they also failed us.
Despite the establishment in March of the investigation by the UN into possible crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese military against Rohingya, and possible crimes against humanity and war crimes against other ethnic groups, no pressure has been put on the military. In fact, the opposite has happened.
In Europe and Asia, Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the military, is given red carpet treatment as an honoured guest. The EU has an arms embargo against Burma, but European companies are still supplying the military with other equipment.
As the international community is trying to sell him equipment instead of trying to prosecute him for violating international law, it is no surprise that he has now confidently ordered a new offensive against my people. Within Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi protects him. He knows he can act with impunity and my people pay the price.
As this new military offensive continues we will start to get many more horrific eye-witness testimonies of atrocities committed by the military – of rape, torture, babies and children being killed. All, as the UN human rights head has said, were preventable.
A major change in approach is needed by the international community if we are ever going to stop this cycle of violence against the Rohingya. The government of Burma needs to be told that international support and finance is conditional on a major change in policy towards the Rohingya. Propaganda and incitement of hatred and violence against Rohingya must stop, discriminatory laws and policies must go, the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s commission must be implemented immediately and in full.
Policy must change towards the military must change as well. A visa ban should be in place for military personnel, instead of red carpet visits. There must be engagement, but it must be critical engagement on human rights and democracy, no more training and cooperation between militaries. Sanctions should be considered against military owned companies. When the UN fact-finding mission makes its report in March next year, its recommendations to hold those responsible for violence accountable, and ending impunity, must be acted upon.
The situation of the Rohingya in Burma can be resolved if the political will is there. It won’t be easy but it can be done. The only alternative to action is letting us be killed. Letting Rohingya be killed has been the approach of the international community so far. There is no sign of that changing.
Tun Khin is the current president of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, which has been a leading voice for Rohingya people around the world. He has briefed officials on the continuing human rights violations committed against Rohingya populations in the US Congress and State Department, British Parliament, Swedish Parliament, European Union Parliament and Commission, the UN Indigenous Forum in NY and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.