If Syria and Yemen weren’t enough to illustrate the depressing state that global humanitarianism finds itself in today, look no further than Myanmar.
A year after a comprehensive report was published by the London-based International State Crime Initiative, suggesting the nation’s long-oppressed Rohingya “face the final stages of genocide,” and 6 months into human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s de-facto leadership, the minority ethnic group finds itself, yet again, under siege.
Yet beyond harsh words, calls for an independent investigation, and crossed fingers for a convicted Suu Kyi intervention, the international community has been frustratingly helpless—and useless. Human rights observers, humanitarian aid, and journalists have all been barred by the government from entering Rakhine state—where the violence has been taking place—while in May, Suu Kyi asked for “enough space” to address the Rohingya’s plight.
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But the clock is ticking ever faster. Last month, the Burmese army launched a large counter operation in Rakhine after officials accused a militant Rohingya group for the deaths of nine border guards. And since, satellite images released by Human Rights Watch show that over 1,200 of their homes had been razed, over 100 have been killed, according to activist groups, women have been systematically raped, and thousands more have been displaced. The government denies the severity of the allegations.
The fresh reports of conflict compounds the historic atrocities the Muslim ethnic group have faced. Facing religious persecution, economic exclusion, and unrecognized by successive government’s—including Suu Kyi’s—various attempts to flee have seen hundreds drown at sea, and thousands rendered homeless.
How much more space can be given? It’s clear Suu Kyi’s hands are tied. Acting, or even speaking out, against the injustices pits Myanmar’s state counselor against the military, who she must win-over in their fragile power-share. Meanwhile the electorate, and the nation’s influential Buddhist monk-hood, hold strong nationalist—and anti-Muslim—beliefs. And upsetting Myanmar’s fragile state of politics, risks destabilizing her National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s priority of economic development. Moreover, Suu Kyi has little control over what the military does.
But the Nobel Prize winner’s silent expedience (Suu Kyi considers herself primarily a politician, not an activist) is outrageously Machiavellian, and inexcusable, given the nature of warnings emanating from her country. Surely this wasn’t the vision of democracy she sacrificed decades of her life for?
And what more can be said of a international humanitarian system that vowed ‘never again’ after Rwanda, Bosnia, Syria, and Yemen, particularly in the week a UN refugee agency representative in neighboring Bangladesh—where the Rohingya have been fleeing to—said the Burmese government’s ultimate goal is “the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar.”
Diplomatic and political channels are now seemingly blunt, not to mention disproportionate, policy tools for the Rohingya’s increasingly desperate situation. And as the optimistic shine of the NLD’s election victory last year dims in the eye of the human rights community, the UN and national governments must see that the global ‘Responsibility to Protect’ threshold, has been breached, and shows little sign of being addressed, quickly enough, by the Burmese state apparatus.
The humanitarian system is evidently stretched this year—but that just means it must expand its capacity, improve its early warning systems, and sharpen its approaches. And concerning Myanmar, earlier this month, the UN Security Council discussed the violence, and called for a resumption of aid access to Rakhine and an international investigation. Though, crucially, it remains unclear whether the UN or national governments have a red-line, or a coherent strategy, for sending-in peacekeepers without sovereign consent—as has been the case for countless instances of state violence.
What is clear is that the Rohingya are not interested in being part of an arbitrary statistic, nor are they able to wait for business-like evidence cases to be drawn to justify their defense. Enough is already apparent. They’ve suffered for decades under oppressive governments, and it may just be too late to see if Suu Kyi’s will offer them any respite. Words have been too little for them. They need urgent action.
Tej Parikh is a global policy analyst and journalist.
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