Roughly a year ago, remarkable scenes were broadcast around the world from the streets of Yangon as citizens gathered to participate in, and celebrate, Myanmar’s general election.
The intense atmosphere of hope that accompanied the poll, the first openly contested one if its kind for decades, was an inspiration to behold; at the time, unfamiliar observers could be forgiven for thinking that the country was on the verge of making a clean break with its troubled past.
Twelve months on and harder political realities have come to the fore. It has taken the sternest test yet of the new government to show how far Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counselor and de facto civilian leader, will go to express solidarity with the armed forces, an autonomous state-within-a-state, which retains the constitutional right to run key ministries and set its own budgets.
It is perhaps out of a desire to avoid a confrontation between competing parts of state power that Suu Kyi has opted to take this stance while neglecting to do more to help those affected by the present crisis, in which thousands of children have been needlessly placed at risk of starvation and death.
This urgent humanitarian situation is just one of the outcomes of a drama currently taking place in Rakhine state, western Myanmar, involving one of the most unwanted and hopeless minorities in the world: the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group of roughly one million people.
The minority, who are almost entirely stateless, have been persecuted in Myanmar for decades, enduring policies designed to make their lives miserable, including limitations on freedom of movement, access to healthcare, education, and other basic rights. Crimes such as rape, extrajudicial killings and extortion have occurred with impunity.
In October, a group of militants committed the first known act of armed aggression by the minority in decades, eliciting a severe crackdown by state forces and setting into motion a series of events that have had dire consequences.
“Distraught and Disgusted”
It is in this context that the lives of thousands of minors have been imperiled. Humanitarian aid to parts of northern Rakhine state was suspended following the declaration of a “military operations area” in which the army has been conducting counter-insurgency sweeps. Allegations of rapes, killings, and arson leaked out of the locked-down zone, only to be met with fervent denials from various parts of the Burmese state; verification has been close to impossible given that independent media have been denied access to the affected areas.
Email updates provided to humanitarian groups by the United Nations acknowledge that roughly 3,000 children in parts of Northern Rakhine State are suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition — a condition affecting infants and children produced by prolonged periods without access to adequate food and drink. The internal message observes that those minors reliant on specialized care for SAM “have not been able to receive their regular treatment” due to government-sanctioned blocks on humanitarian aid deliveries, which have lasted for weeks. “Without appropriate treatment,” the author of the email adds, “30-50 percent of SAM children may die.”
Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) the UN’s key humanitarian agency confirmed the numbers cited above, and echoed its grim conclusions, noting that without access to the care they had been receiving, “many children with SAM are at risk of dying.”
While the time frame of risk to the children was not clearly stated in the emails, one humanitarian official speaking on condition of anonymity told me that those deprived of access to the treatments administered at therapeutic feeding centers are classed as going back to “square one” in terms of their condition — and therefore at greatly heightened risk of death — after three weeks. Aid has been severely restricted for roughly a month and a half.
Asked what the general reaction was to the blockade among staff working in the humanitarian community, he replied that he and his colleagues were “distraught and disgusted.”
Rights groups were similarly condemnatory about the restrictions on aid. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told me that many Rohingya were “facing a crisis of survival” as a result of the restrictions. Referring to the blockade, he indicated that the decision to limit the humanitarian presence in the area may be attributable to the most cynical of motives.
“What’s clear is that the Myanmar government doesn’t want any outside eyes and ears seeing what the security forces are doing in this area, and that means keeping the humanitarians out regardless of the suffering that this causes to the Rohingya people dependent on international assistance,” he said.
Matthew Smith, executive director of Bangkok-based NGO Fortify Rights, was terser in his analysis, saying “the authorities have no defensible reason to block aid. It’s inhumane, pure and simple.”
A State of Denial — and Complicity
Against the backdrop of deteriorating humanitarian conditions and alleged atrocities, Suu Kyi, known in the past for her panegyrics to human rights, has signed off on an increasingly absurd campaign of denial delivered by parts of the government under her control. Saying little on the matter herself, the message from her subordinates has been one of total support for the military.
While the decision not to alienate the armed forces may be shrewd, and certain efforts to do good may be taking place “behind closed doors,” the consequences of this political theater have been deadly serious.
It has eased pressure on the military-controlled parts of the state that are playing a key role in blocking aid, despite the fact that the move to suspend access amounts to a form of collective punishment for communities in the area. With every week that passes more people — beyond the 3,000 children — are at risk of sickness and even death.
That is not all. The language issuing from officials and appointees dealing with the situation, particularly when referring to the Rohingya as a group, has been dangerous and even dehumanizing.
Perhaps the most grotesque example of this was provided by the man picked to head the initial investigation into the violence, Member of Parliament U Aung Win. In an interview with the BBC, laughing as he spoke, he refuted allegations of rape by the military on the grounds that no soldier would deign to violate Rohingya women as they are “very dirty.”
More denialist effluvia was emitted recently by senior government spokesman Zaw Htay in a press conference posted on a Facebook page controlled by Suu Kyi’s office. The spin doctor took aim at the most concrete evidence yet of criminality by government forces — satellite imagery circulated by Human Rights Watch demonstrating obvious destruction of hundreds of Rohingya homes — fallaciously claiming that he had refuted “wrong accusations” made by the organization. At the same presser it was asserted, to the amazement of journalists, that the timing of the violence was part of a conspiracy involving groups that lobby for Rohingya rights.
While these lines have not taken been seriously by the international community, they are received with more credulity by the Burmese public. The idea that the Rohingya, who are the subject of widespread prejudice throughout Myanmar, are involved in conspiracies with international groups has long been by promoted by popular demagogues in the country. Advancing such a narrative to deflect criticism from the army and government is not only deeply cynical but genuinely dangerous.
Elsewhere, commentary in state outlets drifted into the language of outright dehumanization. The Global Light of Myanmar, a mouthpiece newspaper controlled by the Suu Kyi-run Ministry of Information, ran a self-explanatory piece titled “The Thorn Needs Removing If It Pierces,” implicitly supporting the actions of the armed forces, while remaining ambiguous on whether or not the “thorn” was a symbol for all Rohingya or just the insurgents. In the same manner a more recent op-ed warned of the danger posed by “detestable human fleas… trying to combine with each other to amass their force.”
“Burnt Alive in Their Homes”
In contrast to the government’s position, allegations of atrocities were treated as highly credible by The Arakan Project, an independent monitoring group that provides briefings to the United Nations.
“According to our information, the claims about rapes, arson attacks, and killings are accurate. More than 100 civilians have been killed, including women and children, and hundreds have been arrested. The military have shot people on sight, while they were fleeing,” Chris Lewa, director of the group, told me.
“In some cases people were burnt alive in their homes,” she added.
Rights groups have likewise treated claims of abuse seriously, while one senior UN official asserted that the purpose of the current military crackdown was “ethnic cleansing.” OHCHR, the UN’s dedicated human rights agency, added to the crescendo, stating recently that the crackdown may have involved crimes against humanity.
To date, the government has resisted calls for an international investigation of the violence, most recently announcing a second, entirely domestic probe into the situation. Suu Kyi herself, in her first sit-down interview with foreign media on the issue, opted to blame the international community for “concentrating on the negative side of the situation.”
The new investigation has drawn controversy given that it will be headed by a retired general once blacklisted by the United States, known for his role in suppressing popular protests in 2007. While this development is unlikely to assuage critics, the inquiry looks set to be an improvement on the one headed by Aung Win.
There have been other small glimmers of hope: a recent Reuters report cited diplomats who claimed that, after long weeks of waiting, the state counselor was far more willing to pressure the military on the aid situation.
At the time of writing, rumors have been circulating that there may be some movement on the issue when Kofi Annan, head of the broader commission on Rakhine state set up prior to the violence, completes his visit to parts of the region.
Such an intervention could not come soon enough; yet crucial questions remain — will this be yet more theater, accompanied only by minimal change on the ground? If so, how much worse does it have to get before more meaningful steps are taken?
Emanuel Stoakes is a journalist specializing in rights-related stories. He has produced two major documentaries on the Rohingya minority in Myanmar and written for The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Vice, Al Jazeera, and The Diplomat, among others.