TRANSITION FROM military rule to democracy remains far from assured in
Burma, where the military continues to be a formidable force. Now it
is carrying out a scorched-earth offensive against Rohingya Muslim
militants in Rakhine state, a campaign that has forced 65,000
civilians to flee across the border to Bangladesh amid reports of mass
rape, torture and the killing of innocents. Some 90 people have died.
Therein lies a challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the
democracy movement who now tenuously steers the country, and for
Burma’s foreign partners.
We have urged Aung San Suu Kyi to be more outspoken in support of the
long-suffering Rohingya minority, especially now that she has made the
crossing from dissident to political leader of her country, which is
also known as Myanmar. We think she should bring to bear her
considerable moral standing as a Nobel laureate and do what she can —
including promote unhindered investigation and reporting from the
region — to end the abuses. But the ferocious assault on the Rohingya
is being waged by the military, and the generals must be held to
account first and foremost. With a quarter of parliament seats
reserved for the military, those generals still dominate the power
structure of this Buddhist-majority country.
The latest conflict began Oct. 9 when a newly formed group of Rohingya
insurgents struck in the northern part of Rakhine state at three posts
near the border with Bangladesh, killing nine police officers. The
group, well-funded and organized, has been identified as Harakah
al-Yaqin by the International Crisis Group, marking a turn to
guerrilla tactics and violence by Rohingya militants. Since then, the
Burmese military has responded harshly, including with widespread
destruction of villages and atrocities against civilians. The
government has denied allegations of abuse, but human rights
investigators and journalists have been largely barred from the scene.
This is a delicate moment when outside pressure might do some good.
The Obama administration celebrated Burma’s progress toward democracy,
lifting sanctions and making high-level visits to encourage it. We
have no idea whether President Trump will care a whit for the plight
of this battered people. He and his appointees have shown no
enthusiasm for advancing human rights abroad, and Mr. Trump is fond of
strongmen. But the United States has made a big down payment on
Burma’s journey toward a democratic society; further effort is called
for, if a way can be found to do it without undermining Aung San Suu
Kyi’s shaky position. The conflict in Rakhine state should also bring
a stronger response from the United Nations.
The Rohingya civilian suffering is intense, even if it is not on the
radar screen in the West. Though the scale of violence so far is
smaller, think of it as the Aleppo of Asia — a nascent armed
insurgency; a mass of helpless, innocent people; religious fault
lines; and crushing blows from a powerful military. This is a powder
keg that should concern all.
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