Western nations are increasingly concerned at how Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is dealing with violence in Burma’s divided northwest, with the US envoy to the United Nations privately warning fellow diplomats the country could not handle the crisis on its own.
Violence in Burma’s Arakan State, also known as Rakhine, has sent hundreds of Rohingya Muslims fleeing across the border to Bangladesh amid allegations of abuses by security forces, posing the biggest test yet for Suu Kyi’s eight-month-old administration.
Samantha Power, Washington’s ambassador to the UN, outlined the level of concern at a closed meeting of the United Nations Security Council, held at the United States’ request at the body’s headquarters in New York last Thursday, diplomats said.
“Initial enthusiasm of [the] international community to let Myanmar [Burma] continue on this path of reform on its own seems to be dangerous at this stage,” Power told the meeting, according to two diplomats briefed on the discussions.
Suu Kyi responded the next day by telling a gathering of diplomats in Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw, that her country was being treated unfairly, sources said. They added, however, that Burma had also committed to restore aid access and launch a probe into allegations of rights abuses, the key points they had been pressing for.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi has for years been feted in the West for her role as a champion of democracy during years of military rule and house arrest, and her landslide election win last year on a platform of reform was widely hailed.
But the current crisis, the most serious bloodshed in Arakan since hundreds were killed in communal clashes in 2012, has renewed international criticism that she has done too little to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya minority, who are denied citizenship and access to basic services.
Reuters spoke to about a dozen diplomats and aid workers, who described the previously unreported discussions in Burma and New York on condition of anonymity.
Allegations of abuse
Burmese soldiers have poured into the area along Burma’s frontier with Bangladesh, responding to coordinated attacks on three border posts on 9 October that killed nine police officers.
Burma’s military and the government have rejected allegations by residents and rights groups that soldiers have raped Rohingya women, burnt houses and killed civilians during the military operation in Arakan.
Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay said Burma was “releasing correct news immediately” to prevent the spread of misinformation.
“The international community misunderstood us because of Rohingya lobbyists who distributed fabricated news,” he said. “No one in the world would accept attacks on security forces, killings and looting of weapons.”
At the New York meeting last week, Power renewed Washington’s call for the opening of an office of the OHCHR, the UN’s human rights body, in Burma.
She also warned that years of disenfranchisement might have triggered radicalisation of some elements of the Rohingya community, describing the Security Council meeting as a “classic prevention moment”.
US State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson declined to comment on what was said at the closed-door 17 November meeting.
“We remain concerned by reports of ongoing violence and displacement in northern Rakhine State,” Thompson said.
“We continue to urge the government to conduct a credible, independent investigation into the events in Rakhine State, and renew our request for open media access.”
Britain also expressed its concerns at the meeting, diplomats said, as did Malaysia, which voiced worries the violence could prompt a renewed regional migration crisis.
Underscoring the diplomatic tensions, Muslim-majority Malaysia said on Wednesday it was considering pulling out of a regional soccer tournament co-hosted by Burma in protest over its handling of the crisis.
Egypt’s representative said it too was concerned by reports of radicalisation among the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi ‘upset’
Suu Kyi was “upset” at a gathering with top diplomats from the UN, USA, Britain, EU and Denmark in Naypyidaw on Friday, sources said, accusing the international community of an overt focus on one side of the conflict, without “having the real information”.
Diplomats and aid workers said the meeting focused on the resumption of aid in northern Arakan, where provision of food and medicines to 150,000 people has been suspended for more than 40 days as the military has locked down the area.
The UN has said aid is urgently needed for more than 3,000 severely malnourished children who may die without help.
Suu Kyi expressed “positive indications” towards helping people obtain food aid, the diplomats said, but as of Wednesday the aid had not been restored.
Diplomats in Burma say they have been quietly trying to persuade Suu Kyi to allow aid access for some time, with some voicing frustration that she has pressed ahead with a busy schedule of long overseas trips during the crisis.
But while she dominates the civilian government, Suu Kyi remains severely constrained by the still-powerful military, which controls the defence, home and border affairs ministries, and some diplomats acknowledged the limits of what she could do.
At the New York meeting, the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Burma, Vijay Nambiar, “painted a picture of a government in conflict between the civilian and the military”, said a security council diplomat.
“A number of security council diplomats bought this line and felt the government needed more space,” the diplomat said.
Diplomats were also assured that Burma was working to establish a commission to probe both the original attacks and allegations of abuses. A report in state media on Saturday referred only to the formation of a body to investigate “violent attacks” and did not specify whether it would include allegations against security forces.
Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay said the country was taking action in Arakan, pointing to a citizen verification programme aimed at the mostly stateless Rohingya and a special government-level taskforce on Arakan appointed by Suu Kyi after assuming power.
“Our government is working on solving the problem in Rakhine State,” said Zaw Htay.