Myanmar: Rohingya refugee crisis – who’s to blame?

October 27, 2017
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (centre) sits with members of the Tatmadaw during a Union Day commemoration in Panglong, February 12.

More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar (also known as Burma) to Bangladesh since August 25. With about 300,000 Rohingya refugees already in Bangladesh, tens of thousands in hiding in northern parts of Rakhine State and about 100,000 detained in Internal Displacement Camps, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described this mass exodus as “the world fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”

Myanmar used to be home to about 1.3 million Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority who for centuries have lived in the majority Buddhist Myanmar, mostly in Rakhine State. When Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law classified all Rohingya as immigrants from Bangladesh, regardless of where they were born or how long their families had lived in the country, Myanmar’s Rohingya population became the world’s largest group of stateless people.

About 75% of the Rohingya population of Myanmar have now been brutally persecuted and chased from their country of birth. Hundreds of survivors describe indiscriminate killing, widespread rape, including of children, and the complete destruction of villages by the Myanmarese military known as the Tatmadaw. Human Rights Watch reported tens of thousands of homes and at least 228 Rohingya villages were destroyed by burning in a month.

Addressing the Human Rights Council on September 11, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called this crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Who is responsible for this humanitarian crisis?

Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army

The August 25 attack on about 30 police posts in northern Rakhine State by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was the trigger for this current wave of repression. The government immediately declared ARSA a “terrorist group” and has consistently defended the actions of the Tatmadaw as “counter-terrorism” operations.

Myanmar’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, blames ARSA for the crisis. She also blames international organisations that “participated while extremist terrorists besieged” a village, and who she says created a "huge iceberg of misinformation" to promote "the interests of terrorists".

However, ARSA states that “we do not associate with any terrorist group across the world”, and clearly focuses on Rohingya persecution and repression. Maung Zarni, a Myanmarese activist and adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism, told Al Jazeera that ARSA’s actions were the result of "systematic abuses of genocidal proportions" by the Tatmadaw.


Many, if not most, foreign and national commentators lay the blame with the omnipotent Tatmadaw. Such arguments also include a justification of why Suu Kyi has defended the Tatmadaw’s actions and remained silent on the plight of the Rohingya.

For example, former East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta said: “For her to survive in this context, she has to try to work with the military. She cannot antagonise them. She cannot antagonise the hardliners and the nationalist Buddhist monks and others. So it’s an extraordinarily difficult situation for her … sometimes the criticism is probably misdirected more to her than the military.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd weighed in along the same lines: “Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s challenge has been to avoid providing the military with sufficient cause to justify a coup against her democratically elected government while also working toward long-term solutions for the Rohingya.”

This view – that it would be political suicide for her to speak up for the Rohingya and against the Tatmadaw and nationalist Buddhists – is widely held in Myanmar, and regularly used to explain Suu Kyi’s lack of action or concern.

This is not surprising. Suu Kyi is not president, but state counsellor and minister of foreign affairs. The military-written constitution bars her from the Presidency, because her two sons are British. The president, Htin Kyaw, a long-term friend of Suu Kyi’s, is largely seen as a figurehead, playing a minor political role.

Moreover, with 25% of the seats in parliament allocated to the military and three key ministries – Border Affairs, Defence and Home Affairs – under the military’s direct control, it is understandable why many see the Tatmadaw as the most powerful institution in the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Nevertheless, a growing number of critics, including many of her former supporters, see the ultimate responsibility for this crisis resting with Suu Kyi.

As a woman who stood up to a military dictatorship for more than twenty years, becoming a global icon of democracy and justice, and who led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide electoral victory in November 2015, these critics say that if she had the political will, Suu Kyi could resolve the crisis. With the huge following she still has, she could readily change public opinion on this issue.

In an “Open letter from a Rohingya to Aung San Suu Kyi”, Ro Mayyu Ali, speaking to Al Jazeera said: “I was born in the same year you were awarded your coveted Nobel Peace Prize. It was one of the greatest honours to be bestowed upon someone from our country … For the first time since independence, we – the Rohingya – felt as though we were a part of this country. We were proud to call ourselves Myanmarese.

“On September 1, my parents and I were forced to leave our home. After three days and two nights, we reached Bangladesh after crossing the Naf River on a small rowing boat. We later found shelter at the Kutupalong refugee camp. I just received information that my home was burned to the ground.

“While many will say it was the army or vigilantes that burned it down, I feel as if it is you – Aung San Suu Kyi – that is to blame … You are the one who is responsible for setting my hopes and dreams on fire.”

Responding to the fact that the military controls key ministries, Zarni said: “She controls four other ministries that are directly involved in dismissing, denying and legitimating the persecution of the Rohingyas: the Information Ministry; Religious Affairs Ministry; Immigration Ministry; and Foreign Affairs Ministry.

“In a word, she will be remembered as a genocide denier. She is not simply standing by when thousands of people are driven out of the country. She is actually culpable. She is aiding and abetting, wittingly, out of her anti-Muslim racism.”

Bangladeshi economist and fellow Nobel Peace laureate, Muhammad Yunus, is equally clear: "I'll put 100% of the blame on her because she is the leader." Speaking to Al Jazeera, he pointed out that Suu Kyi is going out of her way to support the Tatmadaw and its actions. "Not only that, verbally she's defending it … She says, 'I don't know why these people are going. No, we don't have atrocities’ … She gets all the blame and she's responsible for it, and she has to fix it."

Australia’s role

In a yet-to-be-released report, the International Commission of Jurists note: “Even recognising the legal and practical limitations on the exercise of civilian authority over security operations, the NLD-led civilian government remains bound to do everything in its power to protect human rights during security operations in Myanmar.”

As key steps in resolving this crisis, the report recommends: “A review and modification of the 1982 Citizenship Law and its application is required so that it offers rights to all residents of Myanmar in line with the principle of non-discrimination” and, “Other States in the region, including Thailand and Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Australia, must also ensure that Rohingya refugees (as all other refugees and asylum seekers) under their jurisdiction are offered full protection under international human rights and refugee law.”

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