Aung San Suu Kyi finally spoke out on the situation in Rakhine. But her speech only perpetuated false information and offered no meaningful solutions.
By Oliver Ward
State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, used her State of the Union speech to finally break her silence on the escalating conflict in the Rakhine State. However, her address was a mixture of excuses and misinformation and offered little comfort or encouragement to the persecuted Rohingya communities.
Her supporters in Yangon celebrated the speech. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s usual discourse on stability and law may appease her faithful Burmese supporters, it will not fool the international community.
“We have never been soft on human rights in this country.”
In the opening minutes of her address, Aung San Suu Kyi proudly proclaimed that Myanmar has never been soft on human rights. But there has been overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nation’s most senior human rights official, called the situation in Rakhine State “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
The UN received reports of Burmese security forces burning Rohingya villages, arbitrary killings, and the unlawful murder of civilians attempting to flee.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan compiled a report in August 2017 which concluded “over the decades since independence, successive governments have adopted legal and administrative measures that progressively eroded the political and civil rights of the Muslim communities in Rakhine State.” Measures include denying the Rohingya citizenship, restricting their freedom of movement and denying them access to government jobs.
She also claimed the Rohingya have access to education and healthcare. However, since the outbreak of violence in 2012, many government teachers were dissuaded from working in Rohingya villages. Kofi Anan’s report found that this has caused many areas of northern Rakhine to rely on “unqualified volunteers” to educate the Rohingya population. The undereducation of the Muslim communities and limited access to education in Myanmar language have further alienated these communities.
The report’s findings on healthcare were little better. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 22 health workers per 10,000 inhabitants to maintain a functioning health system. In Rakhine State, the UN found only five healthcare workers per 10,000 people, far below the Myanmar average of 16 per 10,000. Many villages have no access to a full-time health worker.
“Since the fifth of September, there have been no armed clashes, and there have been no clearance operations.”
She remained adamant that there had been no skirmishes or operations against the Rohingya since the fifth of September. But eyewitnesses on the ground portrayed a different situation. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted a photo allegedly taken on the 18th of September showing three Rohingya villages burning.
Richard Weir also tweeted photos of another village burning on September 13th.
Analysis of satellite imagery from Rakhine State also shows that government troops razed at least 214 villages in the weeks leading up to Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech. Interviews with villagers corroborate the findings of arson, looting and murder.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s denial of the occurrence of these atrocities shows her openly lying to the global community, or she is hopelessly out of touch with the reality of what is occurring in her country. Either way, it does not look good from a former Nobel Peace Prize winner.
She called for progress through unity
The theme of unity and moving forward in “harmony” was recurrent throughout Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech. However, like many of the other themes present, there is little evidence to suggest that Suu Kyi believes what she is saying.
A UN report found that in 2015, the Constitutional Tribunal disqualified Temporary Residence Card holders from voting in the 2015 general election. This prevented the majority of Muslims in Rakhine State from voting in the elections. Because all candidates for election must be registered citizens, the Rakhine Muslim population has no political representation at all, nor can they serve in civil service or bureaucratic positions of government.
The problem is that Aung San Suu Kyi does not see the Rohingya population as part of a united Myanmar. Mark Farmaner was a leading pioneer of the Free Aung San Suu Kyi campaign while she was under house arrest. He met with her several times and concluded that Aung San Suu Kyi “doesn’t see Burma as a multi-ethnic multi-religious country, but a Burma-Buddhist country”.
She never used the word “Rohingya” in her speech, referring to the demographic only as “Muslims”. In one of her booklets published during her years under house arrest, she proclaimed, “we are proud Burmese and not kalaa”. Kalaa is an offensive term for people with darker skin living in Myanmar.
Her writings and carefully worded speech suggest that she believes in national unity, but the Rohingya population are clearly not welcome in her united nation of Myanmar.
She called for the repatriation of refugees
Suu Kyi proudly announced that Myanmar is “prepared to start the verification process at any time” and would be able to repatriate the 420,000 refugees who have fled into Bangladesh since August 25th.
She said Myanmar and Bangladesh would use the 1993 verification process to begin accepting refugees back into Myanmar. But this is another hollow promise from the Burmese government and demonstrates Suu Kyi’s lack of understanding of the situation.
The agreement she alluded to requires refugees to have evidence of their residence in Myanmar or carry a national identity card. But this will prove almost impossible. The government does not give the Rohingya access to Burmese citizenship, and most refugees will not have an identity card or any evidence to verify their residence in Myanmar.
She also welcomed aid workers, diplomats and journalists to the country to “see for yourself” what the situation is like in Myanmar. She invited officials to travel to the Rakhine State and talk to residents who have not fled.
This was evidently an empty invitation. Just the day before her speech, UN human rights investigators requested full access to the Rakhine State to conduct their investigations, but the Burmese government rejected their request.
The UN Commission for Rakhine State found that since 2016 media access to the state’s most affected areas has been highly restricted, with only a handful of foreign journalists permitted to enter.
Can Aung San Suu Kyi bring peace to Myanmar?
Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech was glaringly short of solutions to the conflict. It only served to further cement the belief that Suu Kyi is unable to make any headway in bringing peace to the country. At times, her discourse showed a lack of understanding of the nature of the situation in Rakhine State. Even when she tried to show progress, like the announcement for the repatriation of refugees, the measure was ill-planned and lacked direction on how it would be practically implemented.
Her speech made her position clear. She is happy to perpetuate the military’s lies and mistruths, probably because her vision for Myanmar is similar to the Tatmadaw’s own vision. It is time to stop celebrating an ex-human rights champion and begin condemning the failings of a nation leader utterly complicit in the military’s ethnic cleansing operations.