For far too long, British policy toward Burma has deferred heavily to the views of its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was at it again at the weekend, suggesting she use her “remarkable qualities” to unite her country and stop the violence in Burma’s western Rakhine State, which, he said, afflicts “both Muslims and other communities.” This after a fortnight in which hundreds of Rohingya Muslims have been reported killed, their homes burnt to the ground, and more than 120,000 desperate people have fled for their lives to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the vicious brutality of the Burmese security forces. This followed a coordinated attack by Rohingya militants on two dozen police and border posts in late August. Security force operations in response to the attacks last year were described by the United Nations as very likely crimes against humanity.
Faced with these appalling developments, Suu Kyi has uttered not a word of condemnation. On the contrary, her office has added fuel to the fire by claiming – with breathtaking irresponsibility – that international aid groups are supportive of terrorism. Her pusillanimous stance has triggered widespread criticism, including from the fellow Nobel Peace laureate, Malala Yousafzai.
So, what should the British government do?
First, it needs to address the dire humanitarian situation on the ground, both in Bangladesh and inside Burma. Many refugees have not eaten properly for days, and require specialized medical help. The Burmese government is disgracefully hindering international relief efforts, and should face additional pressure from the UK and other countries to ensure unimpeded access.
Second, there should be much greater pressure on the Burmese government to permit an international investigation of the many egregious abuses so that those responsible can be held to account. It’s outrageous that the Burmese government says it will bar the UN-mandated international fact-finding mission tasked with investigating abuses in Burma, which was established in March 2017 with the support of the UK government.
Third, the UK and others should press Burma to address the underlying causes of this crisis, most obviously, the denial of nationality and legal status of nearly one million Rohingya who have lived in Burma for generations.
More of the same is not an option. The gravity of this crisis requires a major shift in British government policy. Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation lies in tatters, and it’s unconscionable that UK policy should continue to follow her lead.