Last month, Myanmar’s de-facto leader and former human-rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi convened a conference to try to end the many wars that have wracked the country for more than half a century. Leaders of the military and ethnic armed groups, politicians, and civil society activists descended on Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw with the stated aim of achieving what Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party promised when it came to power in April 2016 – “national reconciliation”. But an end to Myanmar’s decades-long conflicts remains as distant as ever.
As the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military spoke at last month’s conference of his “burning desire” to bring peace to the country, video footage of Myanmar army soldiers torturing ethnic men dressed in civilian clothes emerged. The clip shows soldiers beating, kicking and threatening with death several bound men. As the commanding officer repeatedly bludgeons one man, he says, “I’m going to break all your teeth and cut out your tongue.”
This is the kind of brutality the Myanmar military continues to use against ethnic communities, and it is nothing new – in December, footage surfaced online showing state security forces in Rakhine State beating ethnic Rohingya men in a similar fashion. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has announced they will block a United Nations fact-finding mission aimed at holding those responsible to account. If Myanmar’s leaders are serious about ending civil war and the culture of impunity in the country, they should do everything in their power to cooperate with the UN mission.
On March 24, the UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution mandating a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces … with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.”
Suu Kyi's thinly veiled defence of Myanmar's security forces is the latest example of her failure to promote and protect human rights
Rather than welcome it, last week Aung San Suu Kyi told a press conference with Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven that the fact-finding mission was not “in keeping with the needs of the region in which we are trying to establish harmony and understanding”. She had previously announced that the government of Myanmar “disassociated” itself from the resolution because it is “not in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground”.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s thinly veiled defence of Myanmar’s security forces is the latest example of her failure to promote and protect human rights and a feeble justification for precluding the fact-finding mission. Her resistance is particularly problematic given that her unparalleled standing in the country could swing public opinion to push for justice and accountability.
However, her heretofore failure to cooperate should not obscure the real reason for the government’s apparent opposition to the fact-finding mission. Behind the scenes, Myanmar’s military leaders are doing everything they can to frustrate Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration and keep international eyes away from their crimes, particularly in the country’s north and the west.
The failure of the government to acknowledge and properly investigate recent atrocities by the Myanmar army against Rohingya Muslim civilians in Rakhine State prompted the UN to establish the mission. However, its mandate is broad and is not limited to investigating human rights violations in Rakhine State. This is a good thing for Myanmar – and there is no better time than now for the fact-finding mission to do its work.
Fighting in northern Myanmar has only escalated under Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration. An estimated 100,000 people have fled fighting in the north since the conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) resumed in June 2011. Local civil society and my colleagues and I at Fortify Rights have documented extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, forced labour, and other indiscriminate attacks by the Myanmar army in the course of the conflict. Life-saving aid to the displaced has been severely restricted. Thousands of people do not have adequate food, healthcare or shelter.
In Rakhine State, the Myanmar military conducted “clearance operations” in several villages following an October attack by Rohingya fighters on border guard posts. Since December, Fortify Rights documented cases of Myanmar security forces raping Rohingya women and girls, slitting men’s throats, and burning people alive – in some cases killing children and infants. Our findings are consistent with those of a UN report published in February, which concluded that Myanmar’s security forces were committing crimes against humanity in Rakhine State.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian government are in a delicate spot. Under the 2008 constitution, the military can declare a state of emergency and suspend the elected government. However, there is little likelihood of this happening and such a dark prospect would still not justify wholesale denials of atrocity crimes and active obstruction of justice. Moreover, domestic support for the UN mission is growing: Scores of organisations throughout the country have pressured the government to fully cooperate with the fact-finding Mission.
The footage of the Myanmar army’s brutality surfaced as peace conference delegates parted ways and returned home to their respective areas of conflict. A conference billed as a step towards “national reconciliation” instead served to remind us of the biggest obstacle that stands in its way – impunity for the Myanmar army’s crimes. Allowing the UN fact-finding mission unfettered access to investigate human rights violations by military and security forces would help bring that impunity to an end, prevent further violations, and earn much-needed trust from Myanmar’s long-suffering minorities.
David Baulk is a Myanmar Human Rights Specialist with Fortify Rights. He is the author of a forthcoming report on avoidable deprivations in aid to war-affected communities in Myanmar. Follow him on Twitter @davidbaulk
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.