MYIN HLUT, Myanmar — On the eve of the anniversary of a military-led ethnic-cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the nation’s commander in chief, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was in Russia on an arms-buying expedition.
Starting a year ago, more than 700,000 Rohingya began fleeing Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, amid a frenzy of massacre, rape and arson by soldiers and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs, acts of violence that have been widely documented.
Yet since then, General Min Aung Hlaing and Myanmar’s other leaders have escaped international legal censure. And they are maintaining a campaign of denial and avoidance, as well as jailing and intimidating reporters who have documented the attacks.
On Tuesday, while Myanmar’s commander in chief was shopping for weaponry in Russia, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto civilian leader, gave a speech in Singapore in which she made no mention of the bloodletting by the nation’s armed forces. Thousands of Rohingya are believed to have been killed in northern Rakhine State.
United Nations officials have raised the prospect that the violence could be considered genocide, and officials at the United States State Department have debated using the term, according to American diplomats.
But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, blamed the violence on “terrorist activities, which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine.”
On Aug. 25, 2017, Rohingya militants, mostly armed with makeshift weapons, launched strikes on police posts and an army station in northern Rakhine, killing a dozen security forces. Myanmar’s military, which is known as the Tatmadaw, says that its actions were “clearance operations,” in response to the Rohingya raids.
But human-rights groups have documented how the Tatmadaw dispatched truckloads of soldiers to northern Rakhine in the weeks preceding the Aug. 25 militant strike. Soldiers went house to house, confiscating knives and tearing down fencing that could be used by the Rohingya to protect themselves, according to a report by Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based human rights watchdog.
In a question-and-answer session after her lecture in Singapore, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father founded Myanmar’s modern army, said that she found the generals in her cabinet to be “rather sweet.”
Sidestepping a question about the safety concerns Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh had about returning home, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi focused on Rakhine’s tourism potential, calling the state “the most beautiful region in Myanmar.”
“All of the foreigners I have ever met frequently told me that the beaches in Rakhine State are more attractive than those across the world,” she said.
The United States, Canada and the European Union have placed targeted sanctions on Myanmar military officers believed to have directed the violence against the largely stateless Rohingya last year. But General Min Aung Hlaing and other top brass were spared.
Others are pushing for Myanmar to be formally investigated for war crimes. On Friday, a group of 132 Southeast Asian lawmakers called on the United Nations Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, which rules on genocide and mass atrocity crimes.
“One year has passed since the Myanmar military launched its murderous operation in Rakhine State, yet we are no closer to seeing those responsible brought to justice,” said Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament. “As Myanmar is clearly both unwilling and unable to investigate itself, we are now at a stage where the international community must step in to ensure accountability.”
Part of the focus on Myanmar’s actions has been its practice of razing whole Rohingya villages and leveling the landscape, in essence trying to erase history.
On a recent visit by journalists from The New York Times to one such village in Rakhine State, Myin Hlut, tropical foliage had reclaimed what was once a place of human habitation, vines curling up concrete posts and smothering the scorched foundations of homes. The road was lined by charred palm trees and the carcasses of burned-out mosques.
One Rohingya native of that village, Zahidullah Rahim, is now a refugee languishing in a camp in Bangladesh. In an interview there, he said he once hoped to become a lawyer to help represent his people. Now, he still struggles with the idea that the home he once knew had been obliterated, in an act by Myanmar authorities this year that was documented by satellite imagery.
“Everything has disappeared,” he said, “even my dreams.”
Since Myanmar is not a signatory to the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, the Security Council has the power to begin the process of judicial action. On Monday, the Security Council is scheduled to discuss the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
But China and Russia, two permanent members of the United Nations body, have often shielded Myanmar from formal condemnation. Myanmar purchases military equipment from both countries. China has invested heavily in Myanmar’s natural resources, particularly in areas where ethnic minorities live, such as Rakhine State.
General Min Aung Hlaing has been at a military forum in Russia over the past week. Early during his visit, he toured a Moscow exhibition hall filled with more than 26,000 pieces of weaponry and other military equipment and enjoyed a “dynamic display” of tanks, planes and armored vehicles, according to a post on his Facebook page.
Myanmar’s commander-in-chief thanked Russia for its “cooperation in training and military technology between the two armed forces, cooperation in antiterrorism, support and assistance for Myanmar in solving the problems in northern Rakhine State,” said the Facebook post.
Myanmar has one of the largest armies in Southeast Asia. A military junta ruled the country for nearly half a century, placing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years.
The current Myanmar government, which is composed of a hybrid military-civilian leadership, has formed half a dozen commissions to look into the violence in northern Rakhine. But apart from one specific case and a handful of firings or demotions, no individuals have been held accountable for mass rapes, killings and village burnings.
That one case, the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din, was documented by Reuters in a report published in February. Seven soldiers who took part in the executions were sentenced to 10 years in prison. In April, a Myanmar television network announced on its website that the men had been released in a prisoner amnesty before the news was abruptly taken offline.
Two of the Reuters journalists whose reporting was integral to the Inn Din story are in jail, on trial for violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. Their verdict is expected on Monday, and they could face up to 14 years in prison if convicted.