Rights groups urge UK government and international community to consider Nobel laureate ‘part of the problem’ over atrocities in Rakhine state.
Aung San Suu Kyi is implicated in the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, UK MPs heard on Tuesday.
Giving evidence before a parliamentary committee, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Burma Campaign UK and other rights groups urged the government and the international community to see the Nobel laureate as “part of the problem”. They said the bloody military crackdown in Rakhine state had left “thousands” of Rohingya Muslims dead, with others subjected to “appalling rape”, and 600,000 people driven from their homes.
HRW, which has been documenting sexual violence against Rohingya by the Burmese military, attacked the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID) for failing to send specialist teams to speak to victims who had fled to Bangladesh.
The International Rescue Committee estimated there were 75,000 victims of gender-based violence, and that 45% of the Rohingya women attending safe spaces in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh had reported such attacks.
The witnesses giving evidence were asked if the international community had got it wrong in believing Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to be a prisoner in her own country or whether she was complicit in the atrocities against a population described as the “most persecuted minority” in the world. The UN and Theresa May have said the military campaign is a textbook example of “ethnic cleansing”.
“Yes, I’m afraid she is complicit,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK. He said the Nobel peace prize winner had “authoritarian tendencies”, and used repressive laws to restrict freedom of expression, pointing out that she had refused to free political prisoners, one aged 14.
“On several issues she’s part of the problem, although a lot of the international community would also say she’s the best hope and part of the possible solution,” Farmaner told MPs.
“She has kept political prisoners in jail. Although she hasn’t the power to stop their arrests, she has the power to release them – including a 14-year-old recently jailed who was arrested by the Burmese army. It is something we are going to have to come to terms with, as well as the fact that we have the military controlling part of the government. She can repeal repressive laws, she has powers to improve human rights. She’s choosing not to.”
Farmaner said Aung San Suu Kyi had defended the military operation and that the “myth” of a political coup was being used as an excuse to do nothing.
“The biggest tragedy here is she is the one person in the country who really could change attitudes towards the Rohingya. She’s chosen not to do that,” he added. “We’ve seen a change in tone but we haven’t seen a change in policy.
“I’m saying that we need to look again at the support we have given to her government.”
David Mepham, the UK director of HRW, said he agreed with the criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, but stressed international attention should be focused on the Burmese military, and that Britain should be “more assertive and more effective” in pushing this agenda forward.
HRW had documented “appalling rape and mass rape” over the last couple of months and that not enough was being done by the British government to hold those responsible to account for the crimes, Mepham told MPs.
“Some women have been raped and gang raped, have walked for a week with young children. It is unbelievable what they have experienced. The issue of people being held to account for those crimes is critical. DfID and the FCO [Foreign Office] and the British government having made so much of this issue, rightly, you could ask them some tough questions,” he said.
Mepham welcomed the money DfID had committed to “this area” but said that “given the gravity of the situation” the department should review its policy in the country.
Champa Patel, head of Asia programme at Chatham House, said that the humanitarian response plan was only 30% funded and that British influence could ensure money was forthcoming and kickstart political discussions on solutions. But she said there was no international consensus for a political solution due to the “elephant in the room that is China”.
There were calls for the UK government to urge action by the international community, impose sanctions on military leaders and refer events to the international criminal court.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said two civilian experts had flown to Bangladesh on Tuesday, to conduct a needs assessment of the extent of sexual violence and service provision among the Rohingya. The deployment followed a visit by the head of team for the FCO’s preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative to Cox’s Bazar and Dhaka this month, alongside the UN secretary general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten.
A DfID spokesman said it had provided £47m to tackle the crisis. It is supporting a number of organisations working with survivors of sexual violence in Bangladesh, including helping to provide counselling and psychological support, he said. The department is also working with the UN, aid agencies and other partners to scale up the response on gender-based violence.