A dangerous new police force for Rakhine, but where is Aung Sang Suu Kyi?

June 2012: Aung San Suu Kyi visits the Department for International Development in London. Source: DFID – UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons

As reports of violence continue to emerge from the Muangdaw area, a new regional police force made up of untrained and armed non-Muslims is a worrying development. Where are Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her passion for human rights?

By Oliver Ward

A new “regional police” force made up of non-Muslims with little training has been created in Rakhine State to tackle the latest outbreak of violence following attacks on three border posts.

Up to 15,000 so-called Rohingya Muslims are reported to have fled their homes in the unrest, and an estimated 50,000 people are under blockade with little access to food. Other information emerging from the region suggests Muslim homes are being destroyed, as well as allegations of summary executions and rape.

Irresponsible screening measures

Against this backdrop, the arming of an undertrained police force from only one demographic is overwhelmingly irresponsible. The necessary education standards set for the regular force no longer apply to the regional force. In fact, the only requirement for entry is for the candidate to be a non-Muslim resident of the region.

This suggests that not only will the force be grossly underprepared, but may make a difficult situation worse. Without more extensive training, the force will likely have little ability to perform civic duties, and a low awareness of upholding human rights; potentially fuelling existing ethnic divisions. Does this sound like the land of dreams held close by Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters for so long? Defending the action, her office denied any evidence of wrongdoing by the forces operating in the region and dismissed allegations as propaganda.

A wall of silence

And while it is true that Myanmar´s constitution leaves security matters in the hands of the military, more must be done by the Lady to investigate the terrible claims emerging from the conflict zone. While still holding her Nobel Peace Prize she has been markedly absent and silent on the latest developments, continuing with overseas trips and spending four days in India when the fighting broke out.

While claims and counterclaims emerge, the only official comments available have come from presidential spokesmen and have endorsed the military’s approach in the region. But this is not the first time she has been absent on human rights issues. When a delegation was sent from Human Rights Watch in 2014 to meet with government officials to discuss the mistreatment of the so-called Rohingya, they were denied an audience with Suu Kyi.

A lack of humanitarian aid

As she travels off on these diplomatic missions, back at home large amounts of the Rakhine State Muslims live in a vulnerable state of existence and depend on humanitarian aid to survive. As such, advocacy groups are expressing serious concerns about the military’s decision to block travel to the zone and expel journalists and aid workers. They say a humanitarian disaster is developing.

And if you look to international law then what is happening is actually illegal. Authorities are only permitted to restrict a population’s freedom of movement for a short period, and that needs to be due to specific security reasons. At the same time, the United Nations Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement should be at play, and humanitarian assistance must be granted to ensure free and unobstructed passage. Currently, it seems the military’s expansive blockade of the region holds this in total disregard.

Government rhetoric

On the limited occasions when the government has commented on the situation, the rhetoric and discourse used are alarming. Aung Wing, a parliament minister, has placed the blame on the shoulders of the Muslim group themselves. She accused them of burning down their own homes, and described Bengali villages as “military strongholds”. Meanwhile, the state-run media published an article referring to the Rohingya as a “thorn” which needs “removing.”

Remembering the level of state control of the country’s press, the extreme rhetoric in these pieces is even more troubling and endangers public interest by fuelling ethnic fires. It also demonstrates, yet again, a complete undermining of the human rights and integrity of ethnic groups. Perhaps Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s political motivations trump her drive for civil liberty.

International response

Outside of Myanmar, the United Nations General Assembly has routinely administered a resolution on the human rights abuses taking place for the last 24 years. However, repressive actions are clearly still rife, and none of the global body’s recommendations are implemented in full.

Despite the United Nations statements, which describe the situation as being of “serious concern,” government measures are still politically marginalising the so-called Rohingyas. Last year all Temporary Registration Cards were revoked, barring the country’s entire Muslim population from voting and running for office in the elections. Yet despite the government’s lack of appetite to address the issue a United Nations power player – the United States – is slowly lifting sanctions and looking to resume free trade.

At Suu Kyi’s invitation, United Nations observers will shortly visit the blockaded area to file yet another report. But this is nowhere near enough. Unless serious and meaningful economic sanctions are administered against Myanmar, its human rights abuses will continue unchecked. The arbitrary executions, extensive blockades and routine rape and arson attacks against the Muslims living in corners of the country are not only tolerated but actively silenced and covered up by the government.

It is time for the international community to wake up and begin meaningful action to end chronic abuses of human rights. It is time to hear the voice of the great human rights defenders – in Myanmar at least, they all seem to be absent.