Reality in Myanmar can feel like a dark movie plot these days, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who fought for decades against a military dictatorship now provides political cover for atrocities committed by the army.
The humanitarian crisis that began unfolding several years ago in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State is the biggest challenge so far for Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government.
When nine border police officers were killed in an attack in October, the army launched a clearance operation that human rights watchdogs say has spiralled out of control.
Soldiers are accused of arson, rape and murder. At least 65,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority have fled across the border to Bangladesh, the International Organisation for Migration says.
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee was in Myanmar on Wednesday as part of a 12-day visit to assess the country’s human rights situation. During the trip, Lee also spent time inside the conflict zone in Rakhine.
Most Rohingya, despite having lived in Myanmar for generations, are technically stateless, with restricted access to health care, education and jobs. The UN has described them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Since an outbreak of violence in 2012, Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State have mostly lived apart from one another, in many cases in squalid camps.
Even before the recent outbreak of violence, Suu Kyi, who serves as foreign minister and state counsellor and is constitutionally barred from being president, was being sharply criticized for not speaking out in defence of the minority group.
Since her administration took power in April, complaints have been numerous: fighting has flared up across the country, investors have been disappointed with the slow pace of development and people still complain of being subjected to repressive junta-era laws.
However, international observers consider the crisis in Rakhine State to be the low point in Suu Kyi’s tenure so far. In December, 13 fellow Nobel laureates publicly criticized the 71-year-old for not standing up for the persecuted Rohingya.
The events in Rakhine State, where humanitarian aid was blocked from the conflict zone for weeks, amounts to “ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” they said in an open letter to the UN Security Council in December.
“It is time for the international community as a whole to speak out much more strongly … If we fail to take action, people may starve to death if they are not killed with bullets,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s government essentially denies allegations that soldiers have committed human rights violations. Her office instead blames the Rohingya, saying they burned down their own houses to attract international attention and support.
While state media continues to deliver military propaganda, the government criticizes the foreign press – who aren’t allowed into the conflict zone – for publishing “fake news.”
“It is atrocious how Suu Kyi handles the crisis,” says David Mathieson, an analyst based in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon.
But Mathieson also defends the politician against what he considers unfair criticism.
“It now almost seems it is her, not the military, who created the whole mess,” he says.
Burmese analyst Min Zin, who studies the civilian-military relationship in the country, adds: “The constitution leaves the new government with only little power.”
The military still controls a quarter of all seats in parliament as well as central ministries, including Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs.
Suu Kyi’s lack of transparency reminds Min Zin of the previous military government.
“We have no idea what she thinks and what her strategies are,” he says.
Within Myanmar, most people reject the Rohingya’s claim for citizenship, agreeing with their government’s assessment that the Rohingya are in fact Bangladeshi migrants.
If Suu Kyi’s government, which won more than 80 per cent of the votes in the 2015 election, is criticized by the Myanmar people at all, it is for chasing vendors from Yangon pavements rather than for covering up the army’s human rights abuses.
Khin Thet Maw, a 34-year-old waitress in Yangon, doesn’t agree with the attacks against Suu Kyi from abroad.
“‘Mother Suu’ is the leader of Myanmar,” she says. “It’s like in a family. All members should follow the family leader.”