Photo: Burma’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in New Delhi in October. (Poulomi Basu/For The Washington Post)
By Joe Freeman and Annie Gowen
November 4 at 4:00 AM
SITTWE, Burma — A humanitarian crisis in Burma has worsened in recent days amid heightened security after a militant attack and has focused international attention on the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Burmese troops launched a wide-ranging manhunt in a troubled area of Rakhine State after an Oct. 9 attack killed nine police officers and left scorched homes and displaced residents in their wake.
Representatives of the United Nations and diplomats visited the area this week, with U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel calling for a “thorough investigation” into alleged abuse and the restoration of humanitarian access, the State Department said.
Residents described a landscape of fear in which members of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group have allegedly been barred from going to mosques or to work.
Human Rights Watch has reported that satellite data shows villages that have been burned, and Reuters and the Myanmar Times have chronicled the alleged rape of Muslim women by soldiers.
“We can’t go anywhere as we’re not allowed to,” Min Hlaing, a Muslim businessman in a restricted area near Maungdaw, said this week by telephone.
He said food prices had risen as a result of roadblocks and claimed that four community leaders had not been seen in days after being picked up by security forces.
The crisis marks the first major test of Suu Kyi’s new democratically elected administration, which took over March 31 after decades of military rule. Analysts say she must find a way to work with Burma’s powerful military, which still controls the country’s security forces.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been accused of not doing enough to address the Rohingya crisis despite her lifelong commitment to Burmese freedom.
In an interview with The Washington Post in New Delhi on Oct. 18, Suu Kyi said border security posts must be strengthened, rule of law followed and a development plan created for the area.
“So many things have to be done simultaneously. It’s not an easy job,” she said. “But we are, of course, determined to contain the situation and to make sure that we restore peace and harmony as soon as possible.”
Suu Kyi’s government has said that the men who attacked police posts Oct. 9 were Rohingya Muslims from a little-known group called the Movement of Faith, who appeared on video demanding that rights be returned to their community.
There are about 1 million Rohingya Muslims in Burma who are essentially stateless, and many in the Buddhist-majority country consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. More than 120,000 Rohingya remain confined to dirty camps in the area after violent clashes with their Buddhist neighbors in 2012. About 1,500 Buddhists are confined in other camps.
Rohingyas said they did not believe that there was a militant group operating in the state.
“This is a rumor. This is not true. This is the deliberate assassination from the government,” said Mohamed Amin, 21, a Rohingya who lives in the heavily guarded Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe.
More than 16,000 people from both faiths have been displaced by the search that followed the Oct. 9 assault on police posts, and 100,000 are without their regular food assistance, according to Pierre Peron, of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Health services have been suspended, and weeks have passed without access to mobile health clinics and emergency referrals.
“You have a very vulnerable population that is even more vulnerable now,” Peron said.
Asked when full access to aid would be restored, state government spokesman Tin Maung Shwe said the matter was “an internal affair, not an international affair.”
Residents in the crowded camps said that in the days after the attacks, doctors who normally visit a few times a week didn’t show, although some visits have resumed.
Suu Kyi blamed the health care deficit on the security situation.
“It’s even difficult for us to provide enough security to give them the health care that they need,” Suu Kyi said. “It is another big problem. Because doctors and nurses who go to [displaced persons] camps are not treated well by the communities when they go back.”
She added, “The whole thing is a rigmarole.”
At a community health clinic in the Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe last week, there were no doctors, just a weary-looking pharmacist and several patients waiting in a dimly lit room.
“We are doing as much as we can,” said Maung Htun, 54, the pharmacist. “But now we are only capable of healing small things.”
He said that after the attacks, the doctors and emergency workers who would normally visit the area didn’t come.
In addition to the delegation that visited this week, a special commission led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been set up to address the plight of the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi said that the government must create a resettlement program. A controversial citizenship-verification process that has been criticized by rights groups has been stymied because, Suu Kyi said, many Rohingya refused to participate.
“We can’t fix a time frame because it depends on how much everybody is prepared to cooperate,” she said. “We started off this movement for citizenship verification in order that we might move forward, but then, if there is no cooperation, it has been very difficult for us.”
On the ground, the latest flare-up has frayed hope and frayed an already low level of confidence in Suu Kyi’s government.
Maung Aye Shwe, 18, a volunteer teacher in one of the camps, said nothing had changed since Suu Kyi’s historic election a year ago.
“There is no improvement within this year. We are having just oppression. No changes or improvement,” he said.
There are fears that more violence could occur, after a police commander now in charge of operations in Rakhine said he would create a volunteer force to help security.
“We just want a gun to defend our homeland,” said one Buddhist, who did not give her name.
Maung Kyaw Win, 42, a Buddhist displaced by the violence, said he once worked as a goldsmith in his village. He said last week that he has been living in a makeshift camp in a football stadium in the tense north of the state.
He doesn’t know when he and his family will be able to return home, but he does know that relations with his Muslim neighbors will not be the same.
“No one will trust each other until the end of the universe.”
Burma faces ethnic violence. Has Aung San Suu Kyi ignored the plight of her people?
Photo: Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi was in New Delhi on Oct. 18 as part of a three-day state visit. (Poulomi Basu/For The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
October 19 2016
NEW DELHI — Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi said this week that it will “take time” to address her country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis and deflected charges that she has not done enough to speak out on behalf of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim community.
Suu Kyi spoke to The Washington Post as her administration marks six months in office, and as fresh violence threatens to derail the country’s peace process.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and dedicated critic of the former military government came to power at a time when she must deal with a worsening humanitarian crisis that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
The crisis deepened this month when assailants thought to be part of the Rohingya community attacked three police posts in the western part of the country, killing nine police officers. Scores of people were killed and villages torched in a military crackdown that followed.
Suu Kyi said Tuesday that video of the alleged attackers shows “clearly” that their intentions were to wage jihad and that they had exhorted their brothers from the Muslim world to join them.
“We are of course determined to contain the situation and to make sure that we restore peace and harmony as soon as possible,” Suu Kyi said. “We are not going to allow either the security or stability or the integrity of our country to be threatened.”
Suu Kyi’s government came to power in March after the country’s first election following decades of military rule. She said continuing the peace process with ethnic militias fighting in the country’s north and east was her top priority.
But her civilian government must find ways to work with the still-powerful military and take steps to rejuvenate an economy that faltered during decades of brutal military rule. Burma, also known as Myanmar, remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.
In August, Suu Kyi appointed former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan to look into the situation with the Rohingya. More than 1 million Rohingya Muslims live in Burma, but they are considered stateless and have long been denied basic rights.
More than 120,000 are still living in fetid camps in Rakhine state after violent clashes with their Buddhist neighbors in 2012. They have little access to health care and 30,000 of their children do not have proper schools, according to a U.N. report in June.
The report cited a “pattern of gross human rights violations” against the Rohingya, acts that it said could rise to the level of “crimes against humanity” in a court of law.
The government restarted a process of citizenship verification for the Rohingya in June, but many of the Rohingya refused to participate, Suu Kyi said. Human rights activists say they were suspicious that some kind of new card would mean a further erosion of their rights.
“Things take time,” she 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.”
Suu Kyi told the U.N. investigator that the government would avoid using the term “Rohingya,” which many Burmese consider incendiary. Many Burmese call the Rohingya “Bengali,” a reference to the fact that some migrated from Bangladesh years earlier.
“This is inflammatory,” Suu Kyi said. “We simply say Muslims of Rakhine state. Because this is just a factual description which nobody should object to. But of course, everybody objects because they want their old emotive terms to be used.”
Suu Kyi brushed aside the frequent criticism that, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she has not done enough to speak out about the Rohingyas’ plight. She did not go near the camps on a campaign swing through the state last fall and spoke of the conflict only in the vaguest terms.
“Well, I have spoken about it, but people don’t like the way I talk about it because I don’t take sides,” she said. “Nobody takes any account of that because that is not what they want to hear. They want me to make, you know, incendiary remarks, which I am not going to do. I’ve made it very clear that our work is not to condemn but to achieve reconciliation.”
Richard Horsey, a longtime Burma analyst and adviser to the International Crisis Group, said that Suu Kyi had made strides in addressing the issue after her government took over, including the appointment of Annan. But the spate of violence may change that, he said.
“These recent attacks have completely changed the landscape here and what’s possible to do right now,” Horsey said. “It has a huge potential to make the situation much, much worse and much harder to fix.”
Suu Kyi, whose official title is state counselor, spoke at Burma’s embassy while on a trip to India this week. The country is familiar terrain for her, as she spent part of her high school and college years living in New Delhi while her mother was ambassador here.
Suu Kyi, now 71, spent decades campaigning against the military dictatorship in her country, including a total of more than 15 years under house arrest. For her efforts, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
She was freed in 2010 shortly before the military generals began economic reforms that were supported by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration.
Despite the resounding victory of her National League for Democracy in last November’s elections, Burma’s generals retain a tight grip on power, reserving 25 percent of the seats in the country’s parliament, which gives them veto power over any constitutional amendment. The military also appoints the key ministers in home affairs, border affairs and defense.
“Tacitly neither will challenge the other much,” Horsey said. “She’s not challenging the military on security issues and not pushing for changes in the constitution, and they’re not showing signs of actively undermining her civilian government.”
When Suu Kyi visited Washington and met with President Obama last month, he announced that he would remove remaining economic sanctions on the country.
They include a longtime ban on imports of gems from the country’s jade and ruby mines and a list of individuals and companies barred from doing business with U.S. entities. This final move should spur foreign investment from the United States, which remains a fraction of the estimated $9 billion in foreign investment in the country this year, experts said.
“We’ve depended on sanctions long enough,” Suu Kyi said. “Sanctions were put into place at a time we most needed a little leverage. I think it’s time that we moved on to a different phase.”