Aung San Suu Kyi and her foreign admirers must help the Rohingyas

The Economist says: The reports are horrifying: soldiers and militiamen surrounding villages, raping women, decapitating children, herding men into buildings and setting them ablaze. The Burmese army is letting few outsiders into the northern part of Rakhine state, near the border with Bangladesh, so it is hard to be certain about the scale of the atrocities. But the UN says that well over 150,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August 25th, with 35,000 crossing the border in a single day this week. They are the lucky ones. Satellite images reveal burning villages across northern Rakhine, and bodies have been washing up on the shores of the river that separates Myanmar from Bangladesh (see article). The victims are Rohingyas, a Muslim minority that has been persecuted by the Burmese authorities with varying degrees of ferocity since the 1980s.

Today’s government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a victim of persecution by past military regimes, and winner of the Nobel peace prize for her long vigil for democracy. But she seems no more sympathetic to the Rohingyas’ plight than her jackbooted predecessors. She denies that there is any systematic abuse by the security services, claiming instead that they are simply trying to hunt down organised Rohingya militants who have attacked police and army posts. Pleas from the UN, neighbouring governments, aid agencies and even her fellow Nobel laureates to curb the violence and allow humanitarian aid to flow to the victims have had no effect. She is not even willing to use the term Rohingya; her government dismisses the 1m-strong group that has been present in Rakhine since precolonial times as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Ms Suu Kyi’s initial reluctance to take up the Rohingya cause was understandable, though not admirable. The vast majority of Burmese share the official view, that Rohingyas are foreign interlopers; many also imagine that, as Muslims, they are plotting against Buddhism, the religion of the majority. When sectarian riots broke out in 2012 between Rohingyas and Rakhines, a largely Buddhist ethnic group inhabiting the same region, the local media painted the Rohingyas as the aggressors, even though they came off much the worse. Moreover, Ms Suu Kyi has little authority over the army, which granted itself the right to regulate itself (and the police) before handing power to her civilian government. Why take on an unpopular fight that she had almost no prospect of winning?

But the violence in Rakhine has reached such an unconscionable level that there can be no justifying continued passivity. Whether it is popular or not, the first duty of any government is to keep the people it governs alive. Even if Ms Suu Kyi cannot rein in the army, she should at least denounce its behaviour, and make clear to ordinary Burmese the horrors it is unleashing in their name. She has managed to face the generals down once before, after all, during her campaign for democracy, and retains immense moral authority. [Continue reading…]

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