A former US Diplomat sides with Myanmar Government by saying she sympathises with the difficult situation being faced by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and doesn’t accept the narrative that is being spread worldwide about what is happening in northern Rakhine State, including accusations that the Tatmadaw is torching villages or planting landmines.
I think the international community has to sort out the facts before making accusations
Priscilla Clapp, senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace
Q: You were on a mission in Burma from 1999 to 2002, at a time when Aung San Suu Kyi was described as an icon for peaceful resistance as she was put under house arrest while you were there. Has your perception of her changed in the past two weeks?
A: No, I simply don’t accept the narrative that we just heard. There was indeed a terrorist attack in Rakhine. It came from outside and it was perpetrated by people in the Rohingya diaspora living in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, coming in through Bangladesh and they have killed a lot of security forces.
This started in October and the latest attack was timed to follow the presentation of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan International Commission on Rakhine, which Aung San Suu Kyi has accepted and agreed to implement. These recommendations call for a long-term solution there and she was already working on it when it was disrupted by this latest terrorist attack.
Their tactics are terrorists, no questions about it. She’s not calling the entire Rohingya population terrorists. She is referring to a group of people who are going around with guns, machetes and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and killing their own people in addition to Buddhists, Hindus and others who get in their way.
They have killed a lot of security forces and they are wreaking havoc in the region. The people who are fleeing out into Bangladesh are not only fleeing in response to the security forces but they are fleeing their own radical groups because they have been attacking Rohingya, particularly the leadership who have been trying to work with the government on the citizenship process and other humanitarian efforts that were underway there. This has all been thrown in through a confusion that has been sown by the latest attacks.
I think the international community has to sort out the facts before making accusations.
Q: So it was an attack by militants against the armed forces in northwest Burma that triggered this, that’s undoubted. But the question is shouldn’t Aung San Suu Kyi have at least a word of sympathy for the more than 125,000 refugees who fled to Bangladesh?
A: I’m sure she does have sympathy for them, I don’t know, but she has made a number of statements recently. And it is not clear how many have actually fled to Bangladesh. They have already told Bangladesh that they will work with them to return them safely to Rakhine State when the time comes.
Right now many of their villages have been torched and they were not torched by the military. The military has done some damage, I won’t deny that, but the militants themselves have been going around torching these villages.
Q: Should Burma’s authorities pick up on that call made by Norway to let in humanitarian aid groups?
A: They are letting them in but they can’t let them into the area where there’s so much violence going on because it’s dangerous. There were many humanitarian aid groups in there already. But they have made their own decision to leave under the current circumstances. They’re probably in Sittway or some other part of Rakhine State where it’s safer now.
Q: You said earlier that Aung San Suu Kyi has sympathy with the Rohingyas, but why is it we’re hearing reports of landmines being lain between the borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh? Does that show a lack of sympathy or is that to prevent the Rohingyas from returning to the country?
A: Who is laying the landmines? The landmines are also in the hands of the terrorists. We don’t know who’s doing that.
Q: Bangladesh squarely accuses the authorities of Myanmar of laying those landmines.
A: Well that may be so, they may be accusing the Burmese, but that’s not necessarily who’s doing it. Nobody really knows what the situation is on the ground.
Q: We’ve heard criticism from the likes of Desmond Tutu and other Nobel laureates asking Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out more. What’s your reaction to that?
A: I understand the situation she’s in. I’ve lived there and it’s a very divisive society. There are many different ethnic groups, many religions and with the transition that is going on, they have a lot of freedom now and some of them are abusing those freedoms.
There are extremists on the Buddhist side who have become very political, including the main opposition party. They’re using the anti-Muslim sentiment for their own political purposes. Rakhine politicians are doing the same thing. So if she wades into the middle of this very volatile, internal political situation, with a lot of harsh words, one way or the other, against the military or against the Buddhists, she’s going to be dead meat.
Q: So what should the international community be doing?
A: I think the international community is already on the job. You have to look at what the Kofi Annan commission did. They made a very thorough investigation of the whole situation. They came up with a very comprehensive set of recommendations pointing out to what would lead to a long-term solution, which involves changing the hearts and minds of people, in addition to economic development, to improve the conditions of everybody living there. It’s a very poor state and there’s competition for resources. And there are a lot of groups now arming themselves on both sides and acting as militias. All of this has to be dealt with comprehensively.
Now she has accepted those recommendations and she has set up a government commission consisting of all of the concerned ministries who have the resources and means to address this.
She’s also setting up an advisory board of international members so that the international community can participate in helping to implement these recommendations. So that’s exactly what we should be doing.
The United States has already been on the ground in Rakhine State providing comprehensive assistance to health, economic development, human rights and education.
Q: But for the time being, no public statement from Aung San Suu Kyi expressing sympathy for the Rohingyas fleeing the fighting.
A: Well, that’s one piece of a very, very large puzzle. You will hear from her in September when she comes to the UN.
I don’t think you’re going to see her speaking out loudly while she’s still at home facing a very hostile public.