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Burma’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi faces mounting criticism for her government’s handling of a crisis in Muslim-majority northern Arakan State, where soldiers have blocked access for aid workers and are accused of raping and killing civilians.
The military operation has sharpened the tension between Suu Kyi’s six-month-old civilian administration and the army, which ruled the country for decades and retains key powers, including control of ministries responsible for security.
Exposing the lack of oversight of the armed forces by the government, military commanders have ignored requests for information about alleged misconduct by soldiers for more than 10 days, according to a senior civilian official.
Troops moved into northern Arakan, near the frontier with Bangladesh, after militants killed nine border police in coordinated attacks on 9 October.
Since then, the government has said five soldiers and at least 33 insurgents have been killed in clashes with a group it believes has around 400 members drawn from the mostly stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.
While Burma’s army-drafted constitution puts the military firmly in control of security matters, diplomats and aid workers say privately they are dismayed at Suu Kyi’s lack of deeper involvement in the handling of the crisis.
Suu Kyi, who as well as effectively leading the government as state counsellor is also Burma’s foreign minister, has pressed ahead with a busy schedule of overseas trips.
When fighting erupted in Arakan, she departed for a four-day visit to India, and is due to leave again on Tuesday for a five-day trip to Japan.
“Right now there’s only one person calling the shots — when she’s abroad, nothing gets done,” said an international observer familiar with the situation, echoing previous criticisms of Suu Kyi’s autocratic decision-making style.
United Nations human rights experts have urged the government to investigate the allegations of abuses by troops and UN agencies have called for aid access to the area.
Suu Kyi has not directly commented on those calls or on statements from human rights monitors, although she has urged the military to exercise restraint and act within the law.
In its public comments the government — largely through presidential spokesman Zaw Htay, a former soldier and holdover from the previous military-aligned administration — has backed the military line that the army is conducting carefully targeted sweeps against Islamist militants it blames for the Oct. 9 attacks.
But residents and rights groups have reported killings, looting and sexual assaults committed by soldiers against civilians.
Pointing to behind-the-scenes tensions, Reuters has obtained a list of 13 questions the civilian side of the government has sent to the military, requesting information about reports of killings, looting, arrests and destruction of homes.
“We submitted the list on 20 October, but we still haven’t heard back,” said a civilian official who refused to be identified because he was not allowed to discuss the previously unpublished list with the media.
Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw — a confidante handpicked by the Nobel laureate — met the military’s top brass on 14 October and urged a restrained and judicious response to the attacks.
Civilian officials were “managing that problem very closely”, Zaw Htay told Reuters on Friday.
“They already agreed on the policy. That’s why the military and the interior ministry ordered ground troops and police in Rakhine [Arakan] to work according to the law,” he said.
Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official and analyst based in Rangoon, said that since taking power Suu Kyi’s government had established a level of “confidence and trust” with the military leadership.
Still, it remains unclear whether there is the “active, working-level relationship” needed to address concerns about the military’s actions in Arakan, he said.
More reports of looting
Civilian and police officials have said it was not possible that security forces had committed abuses.
Diplomats and United Nations officials want independent observers allowed into the area to verify the reports. They are also pressuring the government to allow humanitarian aid into the area, where the Rohingya population are denied Burma citizenship and face restrictions on their movements.
Last week, eight Rohingya women told Reuters reporters who visited their village that they have been raped by soldiers. Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay denied the allegations.
Since that report was published, about 400 soldiers again searched the village at the weekend, a resident said on Monday.
The resident, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said security personnel warned women in the village of U Shey Kya about talking to media.
There were no allegations of further assaults, but soldiers looted food stores, farming equipment and solar panels, according to the resident and Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a monitoring group with a network of sources in the area.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had analysed satellite imagery taken on 22 October that showed “multiple areas of probable building destruction” in at least three villages where residents have also said that troops torched homes.
“The government should end its blanket denial of wrongdoing and blocking of aid agencies, and stop making excuses for keeping international monitors from the area,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia.