Interview with Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch

Myanmar's denier-in-chief: ″An utter failure of moral leadership″

An estimated number of 270,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and have crossed over to Bangladesh. Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the influx and are reporting an acute shortage of provisions. Roma Rajpal Weiss spoke to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia

Mr. Robertson, what is behind the escalation in the Rakhine?

Robertson: The recent offensive against the Rohingya community by Myanmar security forces is in direct response to a series of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacks on 25 August. They appear to have been the straw that broke the camel′s back. The government has used the ARSA attacks as an excuse to enter Rohingya areas and engage in a scorched earth campaign, targeting civilians. Systematically targeting the civilian population while claiming they are going after the insurgents is a favourite tactic of the security forces.

We suspect that they are destroying what may ultimately be hundreds of villages. There is now satellite imagery for at least 40 villages, showing how systematic and widespread this destruction of villages is. The testimonies we have obtained from refugees coming across the border confirm that Rohingya villages were surrounded by security forces. Some inhabitants fled and got away, some were shot and some were not, but many said that as they were fleeing the areas, they could see their village going up in flames.

What is Aung San Suu Kyi′s role?

Robertson: What can I say? Firstly, Suu Kyi published some very serious allegations on her website claiming that local UN and NGO staff were involved in supporting terrorist activities, but neglected to give any evidence. When the story broke, it essentially put a target on the back of all the humanitarian agencies trying to operate in Rakhine state. Many were forced to suspend operations as a result. The impact has been huge. Even the IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the camps located west of Sittwe – where about 120,000 persons live well away from the north of Rakhine, with its ongoing violence and clearance operations – even those people are unable to obtain food, because local aid agency staff are scared to enter the camps.

Secondly, she has said that what′s happening is all about the terrorists spreading an ″iceberg of fake news.″ So either she has political reasons for not defending the Rohingya, or she is fully complicit with what the security forces are doing. Either way, she has become the denier-in-chief regarding the current situation. Instead of standing up to the army and saying that they have gone too far, she is providing them with the ideal defence and taking all the flak.

And finally, she has come under major criticism for her silence. This is partly because people feel so incredibly let down by her failure to do the things they expected from her, like defending human rights and human dignity. Of course, many people recognise that the 2008 Constitution sets out very serious limitations on Aung San Suu Kyi′s power. She cannot formally order the commander-in-chief of the armed forces to halt these activities because the 2008 Constitution gives him total authority over security matters. But she could certainly raise her voice and make things uncomfortable for the security forces and she hasn′t even done that.

When Suu Kyi was a political prisoner, under house arrest for years and facing off against Myanmar′s military dictatorship, she said very clearly ″use your freedom to promote ours.″ People saw that as a major indicator of where she was going and what she stood for. The reason the international community supported her so strongly was that she stood for resistance against military dictatorship, for the protection of human rights and the dignity of all people. It was almost as if there was an informal contract between her and the international community. She was incredibly popular. The things she stood for were so critically important that people forgot that she is a politician.

On the Rohingya issue, she has ducked the whole question of their status and their situation because she knows that the Rohingya are hugely unpopular within Myanmar. Yet, by remaining silent in the face of the current atrocities, she has created an international dynamic where people around the world don′t want to support her.

Female supporters of Jamat-e-Islami rally in Karachi, Pakistan, against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, 10.09.2017 (photo: Reuters/A. Soomro)
Broken faith with the international community: Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace laureate, has failed to live up to her promise as a bulwark in defence of human rights. Publishing unfounded allegations about local UN staff supporting terrorist activities, maintaining a stony silence on the state persecution of the Rohingya and blustering about ″fake news″, her descent into ignominy has been rapid

Somewhere along the line, Suu Kyi reneged on that deal with the international community that said we will support you because when you take power, you will stand up and support the human rights cause. And she hasn′t been doing that, not even close. This is not a problem that is confined to Rakhine: conflicts between various ethnic groups and the Myanmar security forces are ongoing in other states throughout the country. What we are seeing is an utter failure of moral leadership.

Is there a danger of radicalisation? Could Rakhine become an IS hotspot?

Robertson: These questions are somewhat premature. Of course, no one can totally discount the threat of radicalisation, especially among people enraged by the horrific actions of the Myanmar security forces. But observers are currently making all sorts of wild claims, saying that ARSA is IS-affiliated, or that they are involved with al-Qaida. It seems the counter-terror lobby wants to have another hot spot they can all postulate about. ARSA, on the other hand, have emphasised that their actions relate solely to the situation in Rakhine and they are not involved in international jihadist activities.

Police guard UN convoy carrying UN and NGO workers fleeing Maungdaw, following an attack by ARSA on 28.08.2017 (photo: Reuters/M. Ponir Hossain)
With the potential to radicalise: so far, the activities of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) appear to have been confined to attacks on police in Rakhine State, where populations of the Muslim minority are concentrated. Of course, if Myanmar continues its scorched earth policy, it is only increasing the likelihood that those who have lost hearth and home will fight back all the harder

They say that all they aim to do is protect the Rohingya. As far as we can tell, the original ARSA attacks on 25 August were against the police force. The Myanmar government and army are saying that ARSA is a terrorist group, but they have yet to provide any information or evidence to corroborate this assertion.

Here at Human Rights Watch, we want to see an end to hostilities. Human rights monitors are needed on the ground, conducting interviews and research to find out exactly what happened. All parties must sit down together and work through the plan proposed by Kofi Annan and the Rakhine Advisory Commission. It features a lot of positive, thoughtful, forward-looking and realistic reforms that should be implemented to address the situation, especially some of the root problems. Unfortunately, the report is now being overlooked because of the violence and atrocities occurring in Rakhine state as a result of the ARSA attacks and the security forces′ offensive.

Who could help to de-escalate the situation? What role can the EU play?

Robertson: The EU and international diplomats in Rangoon and elsewhere need to be very involved in persuading the Myanmar government to show restraint and getting the government to apply pressure to the army. The situation is extremely grave: the only way forward is for the EU and others to put pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi and key people in her government to take a risk and start demanding that the military end its scorched earth campaign. The government has to stop giving the security forces a blank cheque just because the targets are Rohingya.

Interview conducted by Roma Rajpal Weiss

© 2017

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