November 26, 2016 11:35 pm JST

Myanmar's Rohingya crisis stirs regional protests

SIMON ROUGHNEEN, Asia regional correspondent

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is coming under heavy international criticism for her reluctance to address alleged human rights abuses in Myanmar's Rakhine State. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA -- The spiraling humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's western Rakhine State is prompting anger among Muslims across Asia.  Last week, thousands of protestors in several regional capitals slammed Myanmar's treatment of its Muslim Rohingya minority -- even going as far as labelling the country's de facto leader, a former political prisoner and now State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, as a "butcher" over the military's brutal crackdown in Muslim-dominated borderlands close to Bangladesh.

In Indonesia, home to more Muslims than any other country, around 400 demonstrators, including members of some Islamic political parties, gathered in front of the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta on Nov. 25, shouting demands that Aung San Suu Kyi hand back the Nobel peace prize she was awarded while under house arrest by the Myanmar military in 1991.

"I'm sorry Ms. Suu Kyi, we know you accept the Nobel peace prize, but where is the peace in Myanmar? There is no peace in your country for Muslims," said rally co-ordinator Julkifli Ali.

Myanmar's roughly 1.1 million Rohingya are concentrated in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, where for decades they have been denied many basic rights -- including Myanmar citizenship in most cases. Despite the country's widely watched transition to democracy and the November 2015 election triumph of Aung San Suu Kyi's once-oppressed National League for Democracy, the plight of the Rohingya has not improved. Rather it has taken a turn for the worse since Oct. 9, when more than 250 Rohingya militants killed nine Myanmar policemen in raids on border posts along Myanmar's frontier with Bangladesh. 

That incident, in which the attackers made off with weapons from the border posts, has prompted scorched earth reprisals from the army around the far northern border town of Maungdaw, an area heavily populated by Rohingya.  More than 100 people have been killed since then, mainly "suspected attackers," according to military estimates, although human rights groups say the real death toll is much higher. Villages have been destroyed and more than 30,000 people have been driven from their homes during the latest turmoil.

Verifying the extent and nature of the crisis is impossible, however, as the government has curbed humanitarian assistance and blocked most media access to the conflict zone.

A United Nations official, John McKissick, told the BBC on Nov. 24 that Myanmar seemed set on ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State. "It's very difficult for the Bangladeshi government to say the border is open because this would further encourage the government of Myanmar to continue the atrocities and push them out until they have achieved their ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar, " he said.

The comments sparked a furious reaction from the Myanmar government. Zaw Htay, spokesman for the Myanmar presidential office, said McKissick "should maintain his professionalism and his ethics as a United Nations officer because his comments are just allegations."

Myanmar's government has vehemently denied any wrongdoing by the army, dismissing reports of abuse as "fabrication" and saying soldiers are simply defending the country from an armed insurgency.

But multiple claims from eye witnesses and human rights groups of soldiers executing male civilians and raping women have emerged, as well as satellite images showing more than 1,000 homes burnt to the ground.

Regional reaction

In public protests in Jakarta, demonstrators accused Myanmar of genocide, shouting "stop killing Rohingya."  Some dressed up as soldiers, toy rifles slung over shoulders, while others, smeared with fake blood and cradling baby dolls, played grieving Rohingya mothers fleeing from the military.

Rolls of barbed wire separated the demonstrators from the Myanmar embassy, with dozens of police lined up behind the bristling coils. Earlier, the Indonesian police said that thousands of police were on alert across the capital with concerns that the protest could move elsewhere in the city and focus on Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian Chinese-Indonesian who Islamists want imprisoned over accusations that he insulted the Koran in a recent speech.

Elsewhere, the Malaysian foreign ministry said that the situation facing Myanmar's Muslim minority was a cause for "concern" and said it would emulate the Bangladeshi government by delivering a warning about Rakhine State. "The ministry will summon the ambassador of Myanmar to convey the government of Malaysia's concern over this issue," the ministry announced, as hundreds of Rohingya protested on Nov. 25 in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

After Indonesia, Malaysia has the second biggest Muslim population of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is also a member.

Around 50,000 Rohingya live in Malaysia, most as refugees who fled Myanmar over the decades since the enactment of a 1982 law that denied most Rohingya Myanmar citizenship. The Myanmar government and many locals regard the Rohingya as immigrants from Bangladesh and use the term "Bengali" to describe the group --  an epithet that most Rohingya refused to accept during Myanmar's 2014 census-taking process.

In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, several thousand protestors marched through the streets on Nov. 26, chanting "Stop killing Rohingya Muslims," and burning an effigy of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The protestors called on the Bangladeshi government to allow more Rohingya refugees cross the from Myanmar into Bangladesh, after human rights groups recently said that hundreds of Rohingya trying to enter Bangladesh from Rakhine state were turned back by Bangladeshi soldiers.

Eyes on Dhaka

Bangladesh has hosted hundreds of thousands Rohingya, many in fetid camps in the border town of Cox's Bazaar, but stopped granting refugee status to Rohingya from Myanmar in 1992.

"Rohingya migration is an uncomfortable issue for Bangladesh. Hopefully, no more illegal migration will happen now," Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said on Nov. 22.

But Bangladesh's reluctance to accept refugees has drawn criticism. "The Rohingya are being squeezed by the callous actions of both the Burmese [Myanmar] and Bangladesh authorities," said Champa Patel, South Asia director for Amnesty International.

In military-ruled Thailand, where demonstrations related to domestic affairs are banned, protestors were able to gather on Nov. 25 outside the Myanmar embassy in the capital, Bangkok. 

Despite growing protests across the region and claims of ethnic cleansing, Myanmar's neighbors are unlikely to take action - possibly in the interests of ASEAN solidarity. Indonesian Ambassador to ASEAN Rahmat Pramono discounting the prospect of an ASEAN meeting over the crisis, told local media that allegations of ethnic cleansing did not take into consideration the difficulties faced by the Myanmar government in Rakhine State.

Despite Myanmar's transition to democracy since a quasi-civilian government took office in 2011, and successful elections in 2015, the military retains a veto-wielding 25% of seats in parliament and controls security-related ministries.

International pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to allow an independent or international investigation could flounder on her need to maintain a working relationship with the military, which appears to have strong public support among Myanmar's people for the crackdown in northern Rakhine State.

Suu Kyi has limited herself to vague comments about the need for the army to adhere to the "rule of law," while approving the formation of various Rakhine-focused national and international committees -- including one headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- to examine the wider conflict. The latest violence in northern Rakhine was also discussed at the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 17.

Vicious cycle

Previous bouts of violence in the region in 2012 -- initially inter-communal but later intensifying into what critics described as a pogrom carried out by Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims -- drove almost 150,000 Rohingya into camps and resulted in the eviction of most of the Muslim population of Sittwe, the regional capital.

Since then thousands more Rohingya have fled by sea to Malaysia and Thailand, risking stormy crossings on rickety boats and the perils of the region's murky human trafficking nexus, and reminding that the plight of the Rohingya is a regional problem

Non-interference in what is deemed the sovereign affairs of member countries has long been an ASEAN maxim -- meaning that human rights abuses have usually been overlooked by the bloc. But some politicians in Southeast Asia want ASEAN to do more. In a recent statement by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Charles Santiago, a Malaysian opposition lawmaker, said that the bloc's members "must remember that what happens in Rakhine State affects more than just Myanmar," adding that the violence is not "an internal affair,  but a situation with clear regional implications."

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