“This is not just a diplomatic briefing, but in some ways, a friendly appeal to all those who wish Myanmar well,” said Myanmar’s State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in her characteristically sombre tone, at the end of her public address on 19 September.
Suu Kyi categorically avoided touching upon specific allegations and counter-allegations with regard to the ground situation in northern Rakhine.
The speech came at a time when the Nobel Peace laureate finds herself in a thick swamp over her passivity on the alleged use of disproportionate and extrajudicial force by state security forces against the stateless community of Rohingya Muslims.
The State Counsellor’s speech, delivered in English for international consumption, came in lieu of her absence at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly held on the same date. In words that were heavily weighed, she offered a fairly broad and ostensibly neutral narrative aimed at damage-control.
Much unlike how the Tatmadaw (military) would have addressed criticism from the outside, the Lady’s tone was one of conciliation rather than abrasive dismissal. She was fully aware of the importance of the global community of active and passive stakeholders that she was addressing in consolidating Myanmar’s image as a progressive democracy. This was a target audience that the Lady does not wish to lose anytime soon.
However, the speech has been met with damning criticism from certain quarters of the international community. “Too little, too late”, “disappointing”, “shameful”, "little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming" are some of the phrases that were employed to describe it. As she herself conceded in an interview with ANI next day, Suu Kyi stuck to Naypyidaw’s standard narrative on the Rakhine/Rohingya issue, the crux of which is that the situation is complex, warrants the time to resolve, and is being misrepresented in the international media.
Let's take a look at some of the key themes in her cautiously-framed narrative, and the veracity of the claims made under them.
Rule of Law and Human Rights Violations
Suu Kyi said that her government was committed to the rule of law and condemned all forms of human rights violations and unlawful violence. She said that the security forces were under instructions to adhere to a strict code of conduct and exercise maximum restraint insofar as their operations in northern Rakhine are concerned.
However, these statements carry little value without corresponding evidence from the ground which is impossible owing to the security lockdown imposed in the core conflict zone.
The closest to any ‘evidence’ that we have at the moment are the countless eyewitness accounts of Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh, which paint an entirely different picture. This is further backed up by satellite images released recently showing entire villages razed to the ground. The government, so far, has not furnished any solid material counter-evidence to thwart this accusatory narrative.
Further, ‘rule of law’ is always a non-starter when serious allegations of human rights abuses by state forces are concerned. In fact, on many occasions, the law is used as a shield of legitimacy to carry out a draconian action. Such a broad mandate often leads to excessive use of force and overkill when combatants are diffused within a bigger non-combatant civilian population, like in this case. The situation is somewhat similar to India’s use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in insurgent areas.
Temporary resettlement in camps and aid provision, catered only to the non-Muslim population, including ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, sub-ethnic groups (like Mru), and Hindus. In fact, 4000 of them have already returned to their homes by now - an indication of effective but discriminatory crisis resettlement.
Suu Kyi categorically avoided touching upon specific allegations and counter-allegations with regard to the ground situation in northern Rakhine. She, however, stated that 50 per cent of the Rohingya villages is intact. Even if we take this at face value without triangulating it with material evidence (which remains obscure for now), the obvious question that pops up is: what happened to the other 50 per cent? Who burnt them?
She also stated that the government had launched relief and resettlement programmes on 27 August, two days after the attack. However, almost all media reports tell us that these programmes, involving temporary resettlement in camps and aid provision, catered only to the non-Muslim population, including ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, sub-ethnic groups (like Mru), and Hindus. In fact, 4000 of them have already returned to their homes by now - an indication of effective but discriminatory crisis resettlement.
Exodus of Rohingyas to Bangladesh
Suu Kyi’s comments on the continuing mass exodus of Rohingyas to Bangladesh were met with sharp criticism and apprehension by international observers. She said that ‘most’ of the Muslims had not fled, and called upon the international community to visit northern Rakhine and speak to these Rohingyas who chose to stay back. She also stated that the government wants to find out why the exodus was happening and that it wants to talk to those who had fled.
These are, at best, tactical comments aimed at deflection. Fact remains that 4 lakh Rohingyas have already crossed the perilous border, at least according to UN agencies operating in the area. Considering that around 10 lakh Rohingyas live in northern Rakhine, the displaced indeed accounts for just a part of the entire Muslim population. But, 4 lakh is not a small figure in itself and neither is the proportion of displaced so paltry that it ought to be dismissed.
Her cautiously minced statement does not issue any clear invitation to talk to the displaced - something that it believes is reserved for the state authorities alone.
Observers have also accused her of sounding ignorant for wondering what the reasons for the exodus could be. While she might have been fed inaccurate information about the ground reality in northern Rakhine, this seems to be another strategically-framed narrative like the rest. In asking this question, Suu Kyi implicitly absolved the military of responsibility for the ongoing displacement and shifted the blame to elements beyond the control of her government. The idea that she wants to project is that if the refugee exodus was indeed because of the state’s conduct, then she would certainly know the reason.
One of the most crucial elements under this theme that Suu Kyi talked about was her government’s willingness to engage with the government of Bangladesh to resolve the refugee crisis. She stated that Myanmar is willing to begin the National Verification Process (NVP) - a policy to ascertain the citizenship of non-citizen Rakhine residents, Rohingyas included - and repatriate refugees in Bangladesh in adherence to the principles agreed upon by the two countries in 1993 under UN supervision.
The futility of the NVP is reaffirmed by the fact that only 4000 of the 10 lakh Rohingyas have been accepted as citizens so far, with rest being given “green cards”
This is a welcome move that addresses the root of the problem i.e. citizenship rights for Rohingyas. However, while the NVP has been termed as a nominal policy to partially rehabilitate roving refugees in Rakhine (without giving them full citizenship status), the 1993 guidelines earlier came under scrutiny for violating international law by repatriating refugees in Bangladesh against their own wishes. The futility of the NVP is reaffirmed by the fact that only 4000 of the 10 lakh Rohingyas have been accepted as citizens so far, with rest being given “green cards” (temporary resident status).
For now, the exact provisions of both remain, at best, dubious. Further, Suu Kyi said that all those who are legitimately accepted as ‘refugees’ (in Myanmar) would receive full state entitlements, including security and access to humanitarian aid. What would happen to the rest remains unclear as ever?
An Exercise in Vain?
Clearly, the State Counsellor’s speech was fraught with grave inconsistencies, those that third-party observers are ready to pounce on and expose. Thus, this exercise in damage control certainly falls short of its prime objective of placating international observers concerned about the situation in northern Rakhine.
However, the overall tone of the narrative was not of denial, which is a refreshing break from past official narratives. It was, nonetheless, ridden with passive omissions. Truth is that the Lady does not enjoy full autonomy when it comes to handling the ground situation in the affected conflict zone. The Tatmadaw is the key decision-making authority in this regard; and, thanks to the civilian government’s delicate relationship with the ever-powerful army, Suu Kyi remains tied to the ground for now.