THE language of the United Nations investigation of the “clearances” of Rakhine state by the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, is remarkably measured, given the atrocities that it lists in its assessment of events since August 2017: “The crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts.” In other words, there is clear evidence that genocidal acts were deliberately carried out against the Rohingya people. The report lists the hallmarks of the Tatmadaw action, that caused hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee, without food, water, or shelter, into Bangladesh: the targeting of civilians, sexual violence, exclusionary rhetoric (often through the medium of Facebook, which, finally, since having been criticised in the report, has blocked key military accounts), and impunity. Far from being held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the military perpetrators have enjoyed enhanced popularity. The violence, the UN report says, “has been used by the military to reaffirm itself as the protector of a nation under threat, and further cement its political role” — a remarkable reversal, it says, given the democracy movement’s long struggle against its rule. The silence of Myanmar’s once-iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has led to accusations that she is complicit in the violence. “[She] has not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine state” the UN report says.
As was argued by Neil Casey last week, there is no prospect of immediate return for the refugees, however much they and their Bangladeshi hosts might wish it. It will require not only a reversal of intention in the military government to ensure their safety, but a complete change of mood in the country, where the Buddhist majority are, in general, pleased to see the back of the Muslim “Bengalis”. Although the problems are essentially ethnic and political, such a change of heart falls into the realm of religion. Buddhism is no different from Christianity or Islam in its ability to turn a blind eye to violence when it is given a nationalistic gloss, or when the other side is portrayed as the aggressor; but it is to be hoped that the incontrovertible evidence from the UN gives religious leaders in Myanmar pause. Otherwise it will be necessary to conclude that the military action was completely successful.
The existence of up to a million refugees in camps in Bangladesh — surviving on only one third of the donations said by the UN to be needed — is a clarion call for sacrificial generosity by people in the developed world as a mark of their thankfulness at living away from such violence. How hard it is, therefore, to hear the British Prime Minister announce on Monday: “I am unashamed about the need to ensure that our aid programme works for the UK.” Theresa May described the aid budget, of which the UK Government has previously been so proud, as an “investment” that will now “support our own national interest”. For shame.