Addressing the Chatham House think tank in December, Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that “people around the world are looking for a lead from Britain.” He pledged to provide it: using Britain's global influence “for good” and to be “more engaged with the world than ever before.”
Lofty sentiments. But there is little evidence of such leadership in the British government's tepid response to rampant atrocities in Burma perpetrated by government security forces against the Rohingya Muslim community.
During a visit to Burma last month, Johnson expressed concern about the situation facing the Rohingya. But his comments were scarcely commensurate with the scale of repression in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live.
He also gravely weakened his leverage by overstating the achievements of the country's democratic reform process, and lavishing unqualified praise on Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. This despite its failure to prevent, halt, condemn or properly investigate the egregious abuses carried out by the security forces in Rakhine State, grave violations in Kachin and Shan States, and increased harassment and prosecution of peaceful critics throughout the country.
The Rohingya have suffered decades of discrimination and persecution. Orchestrated and spontaneous attacks on them in 2012 forced an estimated 140,000 people from their homes, 100,000 of whom are still in camps in and around Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. I visited some of these camps just before the November 2015 elections in Burma, and saw first-hand the deplorable conditions in which many Rohingya live and their palpable sense of vulnerability.
But the situation has only worsened since then. The current spate of violence erupted after Rohingya militants attacked Burmese Border Guard posts in October 2016, killing nine security personnel. In response, Burmese security forces unleashed a brutal “clearance operation.”
Satellite imagery analysed by Human Rights Watch identified at least 1,500 buildings apparently burnt down by the military in Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine between October and November last year. This is supported by eyewitness accounts. Villagers described seeing Burmese soldiers setting fire to homes and beating and shooting family members. The United Nations estimates that more than a thousand people died in the crackdown and some 92,000 Rohingya have fled, mostly to neighbouring Bangladesh.
During these military operations, the Rohingya were also subject to systematic sexual violence. Several women described Burmese soldiers raping and gang-raping women and girls, some as young as 13. “Ayesha,” a Rohingya women in her 20s, told Human Rights Watch: “They gathered all the women and started beating us with bamboo sticks and kicking us with their boots. Then the soldiers raped me one by one, tearing my clothes.”
Our findings are reinforced by those of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose report this month described the sexual violence as “very likely crimes against humanity.”
Despite the strength of this evidence, the response of the Burmese authorities, including of Aung San Suu Kyi, has been woefully inadequate. Disgracefully, the authorities have talked of “fake rape,” and suggested that the Rohingya burned down their own homes. Under international pressure, the government has reluctantly set up a number of domestic investigations into alleged abuses in Rakhine. But none of these are remotely independent, impartial or credible.
The most significant of these is the national-level commission. Its members have strong ties to the Burmese government, military and police, and it is headed by one of the country's two vice presidents, Myint Swe. A former general, he led the 2007 crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution,” where at least 20 people, and likely more, were shot dead and hundreds imprisoned.
The commission has provided no opportunity for victims to provide testimony free from the threat of intimidation, its interim report last month dismissed almost all the allegations, and its final report, expected shortly, is set to be a whitewash.
And yet the British government insists – against all the evidence – that this domestic mechanism deserves continuing support. It does not. British officials also suggest that international pressure will weaken Aung San Suu Kyi and strengthen the hand of the military. The opposite is more likely: impunity will only embolden hardliners in the Burmese army.
In other contexts, like Sri Lanka, the British government has recognised the importance of international accountability and justice mechanisms, where domestic ones lack credibility.
Next week's meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should force a change in British policy. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and others will press the council to support an independent international investigation into the violations in Rakhine.
It's time for Britain to back this call and show the kind of international leadership that Johnson promised at Chatham House. Those suffering at the hands of the Burmese military are counting on the British government to find its backbone, and fast.