In so many ways, Myanmar, also called Burma, has embarked on a strikingly successful political journey, aided in part by the international community with leadership from many States. Less than a decade ago, it was among the most autocratic nations in the world, arguably surpassed by only North Korea and perhaps Eritrea. But with sustained international pressure including through crushing sanctions and an intense global spotlight on the military junta’s brutal totalitarianism, Myanmar’s rulers began a slow political thaw as well as gradual liberalization of freedom of expression, association and assembly, along with slow and less than complete toleration of dissent.
Following visits from Heads of State from the United Kingdom, the United States and ASEAN nations, Myanmar’s political journey culminated in election last year of the National League of Democracy party and its leader, Nobel Laureate and pro-democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. Daw Suu Kyi had previously won a landslide election in 1990 but was prevented from taking office by the ruling junta. She soon after was placed under house arrest as Myanmar sunk deeper into totalitarian rule. For the next two decades, Suu Kyi was the very manifestation of courage, dignity and defiance – a heroic figure symbolizing Burma’s struggle for freedom.
Thus, her election and ascendance as the civilian leader of Myanmar – in reality if not name – cannot be underestimated. While she shares power with the military which maintains considerable authority especially over security related ministries, her election is unquestionably an important milestone. Myanmar’s political evolution is no small thing and worthy of international applause. At the same time, we must remain cognizant that the situation remains fragile and while Myanmar is now on the path to greater liberalization, sustainable development and ultimately peace and stability, it is closer to the beginning of that voyage than the end.
Myanmar and Suu Kyi have taken a serious departure from this otherwise relatively positive story: They have utterly failed to address the plight of the Muslim minority community in Rakhine State, known as the Rohingya. The Rohingya are not popular in Burma. They are seen as outsiders. Many in the Buddhist majority in Myanmar refer to them as Bengalis and refuse to use the term Rohingya as it is viewed as conceding closer links to Burma than many Burmese can accept. Rohingya are often housed in camps with abysmal conditions; many do not enjoy freedom of movement, nor basic civil and political rights. Though many have been in Burma for numerous generations, they are not recognized as citizens and thus essentially rendered stateless. They suffer serious abuse and violence by neighbors and treated to daily humiliations of an extreme nature by Burmese government security forces. By any measure, their circumstances are dire.
The dismal treatment of the Rohingya began well before Daw Suu Kyi took power. But many had hoped that once she was in charge as of the Spring of 2016, she would begin to address the serious human rights blight in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside. Unfortunately, what has become increasingly clear over the ensuing months, is that while Daw Suu Kyi was perfectly comfortable reaping benefits as a human rights icon for her own pro-democracy struggle, she is not prepared to display the political courage necessary to take a stand for an unpopular Muslim minority group and prevent the grave and systematic denial of their human rights.
Since October, the situation has gone from bad to worse, as indicated by numerous independent reports by various human rights groups and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar. Just last week, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein issued a rare “flash report” on the continuing human rights crisis in Rakhine. He summed up what his investigators found, namely, that Burmese security forces have demonstrated “[d]evastating cruelty against Rohingya children, women and men” including “[m]ass gang-rape, killings – including of babies and young children, brutal beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations.”
The High Commissioner’s report is not conjecture. His investigators have interviewed victims and rigorously corroborated testimony from those who have escaped the horror by fleeing to refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. The High Commissioner states that “the vast majority [of victims] reported witnessing killings, and almost half reported having a family member who was killed.” Of the women victims interviewed, more than half reported rape or other sexual violence. There are reports of babies butchered to death with knives. In one heartbreaking testimony, a mother recounted how her five-year-old daughter was trying to protect her from rape when a man “took out a long knife and killed her by slitting her throat.” In another case, an eight-month-old baby was reportedly killed while his mother was gang-raped by five Burmese government security officers.
As usual, when oppressive situations turn from serious but survivable to grave and intolerable, people vote with their feet. Despite the many perils of the journey and the general rejection Rohingya experience once they reach Bangladesh, the UN conservatively estimates that more than 65,000 Rohingya have fled since October 9, 2016. Their departure is the canary in the coalmine. It indicates that the atmosphere in Rakhine has become unbearably poisonous and lethal.
Not surprisingly, the High Commissioner has concluded that “[t]he gravity and scale of these allegations begs for robust reaction of the international community” and has asked for increased scrutiny of the human rights situation in Myanmar. Thus far, though, the United States and some of its key allies have not publicly supported more attention on Myanmar. In fact, there is some legitimate fear among human rights NGOs that the new U.S. administration will seek to diminish attention precisely when the situation calls for greater scrutiny.
Ignoring the plight of the Rohingya would be a grave mistake and would betray everything for which the United States stands. Soon, we will have a test as to whether the United States and our allies will stand by our values and support greater examination of the human rights situation in Myanmar. On Monday, the 34th Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council will have commenced. For many years, the Council has appropriately adopted a resolution each March session with respect to Myanmar. The resolution has enjoyed strong support from the United States. The Council has renewed the mandate of an independent investigator – called in U.N. speak, a Special Rapporteur, each year. Myanmar has long sought to eliminate this scrutiny and the Rapporteur, arguing that its overall human rights situation has materially improved.
There are some in the West excessively sympathetic to the Burmese. In particular, Daw Suu Kyi apologists believe it is far more important to empower her than continue to shine a light on the appalling conditions of the Rohingya. For far too many, her iconic status as pro-democracy crusader makes it difficult to hold accountable a Suu Kyi-led government no matter the well-documented human rights violations. Others suggest that the military is to blame for atrocities – a military she does not fully control.
But none of these are sufficient basis to downgrade needed scrutiny, especially not now. Even accepting that Suu Kyi does not sufficiently control the military, she has utterly failed to utilize her considerable bully pulpit which would undoubtedly be impactful. Most importantly, in the face of such evident atrocities, the Human Rights Council must act with purpose, irrespective of who specifically is calling the shots in Burma and how much Suu Kyi is personally to blame. The Council must do so because that is its very purpose – to shine a spotlight on grave human rights situations.
As a general matter, the Council should take pains to treat like cases alike and different cases differently. One of the reasons the United States has been critical of the Council, appropriately so, is that it has consistently engaged in a hyper-focus on human rights issues related to the conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people. No country should be free from scrutiny, but the Council cannot evaluate some states by one measuring stick and other states by another. Such unfair treatment inevitably erodes the credibility of the Council and undermines its legitimacy. In that respect, Burma also presents an opportunity: giving the country the consideration it deserves is one way to help ensure the Council remains credible and relevant in general.
With respect to Burma, the cruel abuse of the Rohingya as reported by credible sources, merits not less but far more intense inquiry. We need to know the nature and scope of the violations and determine who the perpetrators are so they can be brought to account. In short, the situation in Burma today plainly calls for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry by the Human Rights Council.
The Council has established such Commissions in other grave circumstances – for Syria and North Korea and more recently for Eritrea, South Sudan and Burundi. It is heavy medicine reserved for the most horrendous human rights cases. It permits the international community to shine the brightest possible spotlight to determine what the facts are so that effective, affirmative steps can be taken to redress and prevent continuation of human rights transgressions. It is also an attempt to change the decision making calculus of those committing the abuses. In light of the reporting from the Special Rapporteur and more recently and importantly the High Commissioner, there can be no question that a COI is justified here.
Nonetheless, I fear establishing a COI, even though warranted, may not occur. Well-meaning people in the diplomatic core and human rights field see Aung San Suu Kyi as a hero. They are reluctant to hold their icon to account. Her Nobel Prize has become a most awful kind of shield from proper scrutiny.
Permitting Myanmar to continue the grotesque abuse without resolute Council action would send the exact wrong message, however. As the international community – particularly the U.S. and likeminded western allies – stood up for Suu Kyi over the last 25 years in her struggle for human rights, dignity and democracy so too must it stand with the Rohingya. That Daw Suu Kyi is now part of those who will be examined should be of no moment. And the most appropriate next step is for the international community to put in place a Commission of Inquiry forthwith.
Image: Ma Ba Tha, a self-identified Buddhist group, protests the use of the word ‘Rohingya’ as a donation ship from Malaysia arrives with 2,300 tonnes of food, clothes, and medical supplies destined for a Rohingya refugee camp in Burma. Photo: Yangon, Burma, February 9, 2017 – Lauren DeCicca/Getty