As It Happens

As thousands of Rohingya flee violence in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi faces criticism

As It Happens speaks with Tej Thapa, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, who's near the border with Myanmar's Rakhine state in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
A group of Rohingya refugees cross a canal after travelling over the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 1, 2017. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Story transcript

There is increasing criticism of Myanmar and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority in that country continues to worsen.

In less than two weeks, an estimated 87,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar's western Rakhine state and crossed into Bangladesh.

The latest eruption of violence in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has killed more than 400 people. It began after insurgents attacked Myanmar police and paramilitary posts in what they said was an effort to protect their ethnic minority from persecution by security forces in the majority Buddhist country.

Rohingya refugees stand in heavy rain as they are held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in an open area after illegally crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Tej Thapa is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. She's near the border with Myanmar's Rakhine state in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Here's part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off:

As people come over that border, what are they telling you about what's going on in Rakhine state?

The story we get is very troubling, but it does follow a pattern of what we've heard before in Oct. 2016 and earlier in 2013, 2012. It's a story in which security forces, aided in part by local Rakhine or Arakan people, assault a village — either with arms or through threats — and systematically, basically, cleanse the village of Rohingya people.

Largely what we hear is villages are attacked initially with firearms followed then by some kind of mortar. We're not entirely sure about the kind of weaponry they're using, so we're saying mortar for now because that's what we're hearing. But, we might amend that as we get more information.

Then, setting the villages on fire to ensure that people do not come back.

A Rohingya boy carries a child while walking in the mud after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 1, 2017. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

As you pointed out, we have been covering the story of this kind of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state for some time. But, there does seem to be an acceleration of this … What do you understand has happened in recent days?

This started basically around Aug. 25. What we're seeing — and you're right it does seem to be an escalation from previous patterns — the number of people who are fleeing across the border now in this short period of time is much greater than what we saw in the same period of time when the last set of attacks began in Oct. 2016.

It's quite startling. You have to be on the ground to see the numbers and to witness the grief and the anxiety and the bewilderment of the refugees coming across.

In the past, refugees wanted to go back — that's where their land was, that's where their cattle was, that's where their homes were. Now, we're seeing a level of fear that is greater than that.

Today alone, I witnessed several villages being set on fire directly across the border from Bangladesh. I'm in Cox's Bazar right now.

So, that seems to be a significant change and suggests a more determined effort to try and keep the Rohingya out this time.

Your organization, Human Rights Watch, you've released satellite photos of one particular village as an example. Can you tell us what those images show?  

We've actually released images of 17 different villages. The most recent one we did is of a particular village in Rathedaung, which is a township in northern Rakhine state.

On closer analysis, what we've been able to figure out is that at least 700 houses — and this is through heat detecting satellite imagery — which constitutes about 99 per cent of the entire village ... were set on fire. That's consistent with testimony we're hearing from witnesses, refugees who have fled out from other parts of northern Rakhine state.

The Myanmar authorities, the army, is saying that it's the Rohingya themselves, the "terrorists" as they call them, who are setting the villages on fire. What do you say to them?

I mean the first thing I would say to them is then, "Let independent monitors come in, let journalists come in, let the UN's fact finding mission come in and determine that."

No one has found the facts yet as a definitive matter. We are relying on satellite imagery. We're relying on witness accounts. We're relying on what we're hearing from other sources. But, we're not getting independent experts in there to make a determination.

Aung San Suu Kyi speaking earlier this year. (TT News Agency/Christine Olsson via REUTERS)

We know that Aung San Suu Kyi has been a celebrated figure around the world as a champion of human rights. She's a Nobel laureate. Her fellow Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, called on Aung San Suu Kyi to stop the violence. What do you think Aung San Suu Kyi should do?

Frankly, we've been very disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi's position on the whole Rohingya issue. I have to say, I hope that she's humiliated, or a little bit humbled at least at minimum, by a 20-year-old Malala Yousafzai calling on her to give equal citizenship rights to the Rohingya and to treat them properly. It shouldn't have to come to this.

We hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will finally live up to the promise that she had, but it has been a serious disappointment.

Do you think Malala Yousafzai can shame her into doing that?

I don't think there is much that can shame Aung San Suu Kyi at this point. I wish there were. What I hope is that the fact finding mission — the UN's fact finding mission — is able to do their investigation and to produce an independent report that is recognized and that will then carry the international community forward into some kind of United Nations censure to force the Burmese government to treat the Rohingya properly.

It sounds like you're disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi?

Yes. We definitely are disappointed. That's a bit of an understatement, frankly.

With files from The Associated Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from Tej Thapa, listen to the audio above. 


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