Spiralling deaths bring Myanmar shame: Rakhine spins out of control as the world watches

Photo: Comune Parma/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Attacks by militias and the military are razing entire towns to the ground in parts of Myanmar, fracturing families as people flee for their lives. Paralysed by a system where the military has huge amounts of control, there seems little hope of peace. 

By Dimitra Stefanidou

Violence is a constant phenomenon in conflict-torn corners of Myanmar these days. In just one violent attack, and possibly one of many, eight people died and about 20 more were injured after shootings in the Chinese border town of Muse on 20 November.

The incident took place at 2 a.m. and lasted for more than four hours. It was conducted by the combined forces of three ethnic rebel groups, the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta-ang National Libration Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. A member of the rebel groups the Arakan Army confirmed their involvement saying, “We are fighting together with our alliance of ethnic armed groups.”

Losing hope

In the wake of wave after wave of bloodshed and condemnation, Aung San Suu Kyi is losing hope of achieving peace agreements in Myanmar, which suffers from long conflicts between the military forces and ethnic groups that reside in the border towns. This leaves covering up and trying to deny the army’s interference and responsibility as her last stand for decency.

This latest blow, among many, adds to a growing series of hate-fuelled attacks in the Rakhine state. This incident alone brought the death of more than 86 people and the displacement of 30,000 more. The satellite pictures are grim, revealing huge damage and driving greater concern about the violence intensifying. The three Rakhine villages of Pyaung Pyit, Kyet Yoe Pyin, and Wa Peik were completely burned down by military forces.

Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said, “satellite images not only confirm the widespread destruction of Rohingya villages but show that it was even greater than we first thought.”  After the burning of their villages members of the so-called Rohingya, now refugees trying to seek shelter tried to cross the river Naaf, have been reported missing.

“There was a group of people from our village who crossed the river by boat to come here, but suddenly the boat sank,” said Humayun Kabir, the father of three children who had not been seen since the sinking. Some people managed to swim, but seven people, including Mr Kabir’s children, are among the missing. The people who did manage to reach the other side safely found shelter in refugee camps or locals’ houses.

Amid this state-level failure of the responsibility to protect those in danger, the number of refugees who are trying to get into Bangladesh and save themselves is rising. According to reports by the Foreign Minister, border guards are trying to control the huge number of women, children and elderly people and thousands more are waiting to cross the borders between the two countries.

And regardless how difficult it is for Bangladesh to accept this huge number of refugees this might be the only chance these people have to find a shelter. “Difficult as it is for the Bangladesh government to absorb large numbers, it seems to me there is no other choice, because the only other choice is death and suffering,” said John McKissick, head of a local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The influence of the army

So where does the blame lie for this genocide in the making? The military in Myanmar holds an active role in Myanmar’s parliament due to the quasi-parliamentary system of government. This means the national parliament chooses the president but the provisions of the constitution grants one-quarter of national, regional, and state parliamentary seats to military appointees still on active duty.

With this huge advantage, the government and the military have been trying to cover up the violent incidents and claim that army’s intervention aims to eradicate terrorism. Meanwhile, the security forces and military have repeatedly been accused of committing acts of violence against so-called Rohingyas; raping women, torching houses and widespread slaughter.

But even these allegations are difficult to be sure of as the area has been in military lockdown since October. This means food and medicine are hard to come by and more than 150,000 people have been left to fend for themselves for more than 50 days.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s reaction

There is a burning question among this tragic waste of life and deep sorrow, where is the country’s leadership and why is this being allowed to happen? “Things take time,” Aung San Suu Kyi’s said. “The situation in the Rakhine is a legacy of many, many decades of problems. It is not something that happened overnight. We’re not going to be able to resolve it overnight. It goes back even to the last century.”

As the army still holds autonomy on security issues Suu Kyi does not seem willing to risk destroying her relationship with the military and destabilise her freshly elected government. The only statement she made was highly doubtful – that the armed forces in Rakhine operate by the rule of law. But while she tries to hold things together people are dying and fleeing, and living in constant fear.

Meanwhile, the current round of constant violation of human rights is raising serious concerns and severe criticism about the government’s inaction. The United Nations is calling for a thorough investigation on the situation of minorities in Myanmar, carried out by independent institutions. This should, examine the extent of human rights violations, say their representatives, as well as examining any crimes committed by law enforcement officers so they may be one day brought before a court of law.

It should not be “if” these atrocities are occurring, but how. It should not be “if” these crimes will be brought to trial, but when. It should not be “if” Suu Kyi can do anything about it but, how she holds her head high when she did not.