A new humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Myanmar after the military crackdown on “Islamist jihadists” in the Rakhine State, home to more than one million Rohingya Muslims. The military claims it began the counter-terror operation after three border security posts came under attack on October 9. But since then more than 130 people have been killed in the State and 30,000 displaced, triggering a new wave of migration of Rohingyas to neighbouring countries. The army denies targeting civilians, but satellite images taken after the start of the crackdown indicate that hundreds of buildings were burnt down; reports suggest that even those who tried to flee the country were shot dead. The migrants are not welcome in Myanmar’s neighbourhood either. The violence itself is not surprising given the record of persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Many in the Buddhist-majority country call them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh though they have been living in Rakhine for generations. Myanmar’s military started a systematic persecution of the Rohingyas in the 1970s when thousands were deported to Bangladesh. The rest were stripped of citizenship by the junta, which often used the Rohingya problem to drum up support for itself among the Buddhist majority.
What is surprising this time is the silence of the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Ms. Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto ruler, has not said much about the military operation in Rakhine, or spoken for the Rohingya cause. When her party took power in April, ending decades of military rule, many had hoped that it would signal the dawn of a new era of peace and democracy in Myanmar. But the government has been largely ineffective in tackling internal security and humanitarian issues. The operation in Rakhine shows the change of guard in government hasn’t brought any meaningful difference to Myanmar’s most disadvantaged sections. True, the army still remains a powerful institution. It controls the security, defence and border ministries besides wielding considerable economic power. It is also possible that the generals are escalating the conflict on their own. Even so, the government cannot remain in denial about the atrocities. Ms. Suu Kyi bears responsibility for what is happening in Rakhine now because her party rules, not the junta. For decades, Myanmar persecuted the Rohingya people while the world ignored their plight. By all accounts, that situation has not changed.