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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