Myanmar rebuffs U.S. pressure on atrocities against Rohingya Muslims

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with Myanmar Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi before a bilateral meeting on May 22, 2016, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (Credit: State Department/Public Domain/Flickr)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry used his official visit in Myanmar to raise the issue of the continued attacks carried out against Rohingya Muslims in the country. Nobel Peace Prize-winning Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi requested that Myanmar be given the opportunity to deal with the problem itself. However, previous comments from Suu Kyi and new reports of attacks indicate that the new government in Myanmar is not addressing the problem.

“Emotive terms make it very difficult for us to find a peaceful and sensible resolution to our problems,” said Suu Kyi during a joint news conference with Kerry, on Sunday. “All that we are asking is that people should be aware of the difficulties we are facing and to give us enough space to solve all our problems.”

The same day, Human Rights Watch published a new report detailing what it says are crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar’s Arkan state. Its investigations show that security forces in the state are not protecting people from attacks and, in some cases, are taking part in the atrocities. Witnesses say security forces watched men carrying machetes, swords, homemade guns and Molotov cocktails attack villages in October.

In one of the attacks, at least 70 Rohingya were killed. Police and soldiers in the Yan Thei village in Mrauk-U Township received advance warning of a pending attack. Rather than protect people, they participated by disarming the Rohingya people in the village.

“First the soldiers told us, ‘Do not do anything, we will protect you, we will save you,’ so we trusted them,” a 25-year-old survivor told Human Rights Watch. “But later they broke that promise. The Arakanese beat and killed us very easily. The security did not protect us from them.”

Some 28 children are counted among the dead as a result of that attack. Human Rights Watch said the government is hiding behind the label of “communal violence” to shirk any responsibility for protecting people from being attacked and punishing the offenders. It is a cycle that dates back to 2012 and has displaced an estimated 125,000 people from their homes.

More than 1 million Rohingya live in Arakan state. The Myanmar government considers them stateless immigrants from Bangladesh. That designation strips them of basic rights, such as not being counted in the official 2012 census. The term carries political baggage. Suu Kyi recently requested that U.S. ambassador Scot Marciel not use the term. And in late April, hundreds of protesters marched on the U.S. embassy in Myanmar to say that the group does not exist in the country.

“I know it arouses strong passions here. At the same time, we all understand, as a matter of fact, that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya,” said Kerry at the news conference. “What’s critical to focus on is solving the problem; what’s critical to focus on is improving the situation on the ground to promote development, promote respect for human rights, and to benefit all of those who live in Rakhine and throughout Myanmar.”

The persecution against the group and the terrible conditions faced by people displaced from their homes has led many to escape the country and take dangerous sea routes to Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand. Continued pressure may cause more to flee and put their lives at risk in order to get out of Myanmar.

“The government needs to put an immediate stop to the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable or it will be responsible for further violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.