Wednesday February 21, 2018 09:08 AM

Diplomats stationed in Myanmar wary of speaking up on the Rohingya crisis

Diplomats stationed in Myanmar wary of speaking up on the Rohingya crisis
Rohingya refugees stretch their hands to receive aid distributed by local organisations at Balukhali makeshift refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 14, 2017 Reuters

Diplomats say they are trying to preserve whatever influence they have left in order to avert an 'even worse catastrophe'

The Myanmar military has unleashed a crackdown on the Rohingya minority that have led many in the international community to term it as “ethnic cleansing”.

The indiscriminate torture has found its way to be an exodus for the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have, and continue, to flee across the border into Bangladesh, creating one of the biggest humanitarian emergencies in the world, reports The New York Times.

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, has urged “unfettered access” for international agencies and called the Rohingya crisis “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has labelled it genocide. There are now tentative talks of the European Union’s renewal of targeted sanctions on people culpable in the violence that has driven the Muslim minority of Rohingya away from Myanmar’s Rakhine.

But back in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, there is still reluctance to call to task publicly either the military of civilian administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Diplomats say they are trying to preserve whatever influence they have left in order to avert an “even worse catastrophe”.

More than half a million Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh since the military crackdown in late August, launched as counteroffense to simultaneous militant attacks on security posts.

Hundreds of thousands more Rohingya still remain in Rakhine. Those who are unable to flee the persecution are trapped and hungry according to anecdotal evidence collected by international aid agencies, which the government has largely prevented from delivering relief supplies or even assessing need in the region.

“There are few places on earth where we are denied access to this extent,” said Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We have an office in northern Rakhine, we have staff there, we have supplies there, we could go tomorrow with our trucks — but we are being stopped. This is illegal, this is intolerable.”

Elections in 2015 elevated Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose name was once a byword for acts of conscience, and seemed to usher in a chance for democracy to take hold.

But whatever authority she has, as the Myanmar’s state counselor, is dwarfed by that of a military that ruled for nearly half a century and continues to monopolise power.

Aung San Suu Kyi is not the one ordering Rohingya villages to be burned down or civilians to be massacred. That firepower lies with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

In a Facebook post recounting his meeting with the United States ambassador, Scot Marciel, the military chief called reports of a large exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh an “exaggeration”. He reiterated that Rohingya were “not the natives” of Myanmar.

In a televised address delivered to foreign envoys, Suu Kyi declined to tackle accusations that the military has unleashed arson, murder and rape on the Rohingya.

Despite Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s obfuscations, diplomats in Yangon have tended to avoid increasing public pressure. Veteran observers of Myanmar’s military, which has long faced condemnation for its brutality towards civilians and ethnic minorities, have warned that an international shaming of a disgraced Nobel laureate is just what the generals want.

“She gets all the criticism, and then the Tatmadaw gets to quietly do what it wants and what it has done for decades, which is to burn villages and terrorize ethnic areas,” said David Scott Mathieson, a longtime human-rights researcher in Myanmar.

One senior Western envoy said that with no real coordination between military and civilian officials, weeks of flying back and forth to talk with them had come to nothing. The diplomat called it “by far the most frustrating issue I’ve ever worked on.”

Jan Egeland, who once served as the United Nations’ under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, has grown impatient.

“I would like to issue a terse message to the diplomats,” he said. “I would like to disagree that it is a complicated situation. It is very simple: When humanitarians are not allowed to help civilians, people die.”

For its part, the United Nations in Myanmar commissioned an internal report, submitted in April, that warned against soft-pedaling on human rights to placate the military or the civilian authority.

The report said: “Trade-offs between advocacy and access have in practice deprioritised human rights and humanitarian action, which are seen as complicating and undermining relations with government.”

The report’s author, Richard Horsey, noted how quickly the honeymoon period after the 2015 elections had subsided.

“We shouldn’t be surprised that the landing spot for Myanmar’s transition may be as one more Southeast Asian nation with authoritarian tendencies, rising nationalism and ethnic tensions,” he said. “But Myanmar should aspire to be so much better than that.”

“Western donors and the UN have not always been helpful,” said Charles Petrie, a former United Nations resident coordinator in Myanmar, noting “the refusal for a long time to let go of the fairy-tale view of Myanmar with Aung San Suu Kyi coming to power and the corresponding refusal to push back on some of her dogmatic positions.”

Petrie drew comparisons with South Sudan, where the world was “so taken by the narrative of a new country emerging from northern enslavement that the signs of the emerging violence were ignored.”

International aid workers with years of experience in Rakhine say they have never seen the situation so grave.

Brad Hazlett of Partners Relief and Development, a Christian charity that has provided food aid to the Rohingya, said he had been prevented from visiting internment camps this month in the state capital, Sittwe, that he had visited dozens of times before.

“I think their strategy is to starve them out,” he said.

Abul Hashim, a Rohingya from the northern Rakhine village of Anauk Pyin, described over the phone how a team of ambassadors and United Nations officials had gone to the community on October 2 as part of a stage-managed government trip. The crowds of officials who had helicoptered in promised food aid to the village.

But Hashim went on to say that his community had not received anything for nearly 10 days.

For three months, none of the Rohingya have been allowed to step outside the village, he said. They have had no access to doctors or schools. Until some aid arrived, all he, his wife, their three daughters and three sons had that day was less than a pound of rice and some water.

“Our sorrows,” he said, “know no bounds.”

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