In mid-1995 when I was based in Bangkok as a reporter, I received a phone call from a diplomatic contact tipping me off that something big was about to happen Rangoon, the then capital of Burma.
The military junta that ruled Burma was about to release the immensely popular pro-democracy leader and global human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi after six years of house arrest.
I managed to get a visa within a couple of days – not easy then – and soon found myself in the cramped, humid front room of Daw (a respectful honorific meaning Aunty) Suu’s crumbling lakeside villa waiting for what many had thought would never happen.
The Lady – as she is fondly known inside the country – had almost saint-like status. She had been the charismatic leader of pro-democratic forces against 50 years of military rule that had reduced Burma to one of the least-developed nations on earth, with hundreds of political prisoners. In 1990 she won a landslide election victory while under house arrest. The army had refused to hand over power.
Now she entered the room with a broad smile and the dignified grace that was her trademark. I was the only foreign reporter there, but I was in the company of many courageous Burmese colleagues: Local journalists - who had fought for freedom of speech through many tough decades, often at great personal cost. I felt I had a special window on a real world leader at a truly historic moment – and to be frank, no one had any idea what was about to happen next. Daw Suu spoke with what would become her signature style; carefully chosen phrases peaceful resistance and hope for change. She said things like: “the country needs rule of law”, “the people must be able to choose”, “the military has an important role but it shouldn’t be politics”. She trod carefully with a collaborative, non-bitter approach to the armed forces. I think it was this approach that helped elevate her to a global human rights icon.
An attractive, virtuous paragon of disciplined democratic ideals who did not call for revenge, accountability or bloodshed, but reconciliation and justice, rule of law and decency as the basis of transformation from the dark days of brutal military dictatorship. Her favourite phrase at the time was “the military only have guns”. People everywhere, and especially in Burma, loved it. Of course, that strategy was partly designed to reassure the military they had nothing to fear from her release and that perhaps one day, they might consider releasing power, or some of it, to a democratically-elected government – even if doing so was just to get international economic sanctions lifted before the nation completely collapsed.
They were heady days, full of hope that people power would eventually make everything OK, with an Oxford-educated, English-speaking woman leading the way. We could all feel good about that. Right? That’s why Daw Suu resonated around the world.
After several more bouts of house arrest and one violent attack by pro-army thugs that left four of her supporters dead, Daw Suu did eventually go on to win the first free elections by a landslide – in 2015.
Bill Richardson, a former US Ambassador to the UN had spent many years supporting Daw Suu in her struggle against the military and even brokered her first release from house arrest in 1995. He told me her election was a new dawn. “So she was the beacon, the hope, not just of Myanmar, but of the international community, for a heroine to emerge from the rubble of dictatorship and human rights violations,” he says. “And so she won a Nobel Prize and the admiration of the world.”
Suu Kyi took power in a de-facto leadership role of State Counsellor, banned from becoming president because her husband had been British and her two sons are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi accepted a deal with the military; they controlled many of the most powerful ministries including Defence, Border Affairs and the General Administration Department, which essentially runs the country.
Fast-forward to September 2017 and Daw Suu – once the darling of the international community, is almost universally condemned for what many see as her silence over a military campaign that drove 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas across the border to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Some say it’s not her fault, she has no control over the army, it’s not her doing, she probably doesn’t know what’s happening there.
But our six-month investigation reveals how the Nobel Laureate actively blocked United Nations investigations into violence against the Rohingyas and angrily condemned efforts to free two Myanmar journalists investigating mass graves.
Myanmar’s military says the campaign that started in late August 2017 was a ‘clearance operation’ targeting only Rohingya militants who had attacked them.
Through unique access to hundreds of covertly filmed videos and the secret network who filmed them, cross-checked with eyewitness testimony of dozens of survivors, we have been able to reveal how Myanmar’s armed forces systematically targeted civilians. It was a campaign UN officials call ethnic cleansing and potentially genocide.
We also interviewed high-level insiders, who reveal for the first time what they believe Aung San Suu Kyi was thinking and doing as the tensions escalated in the Rakhine State and the military prepared for its attack on the Rohingya. This story really starts in 2012 when tensions between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine – the predominant ethnic group in the region – entered into a bloody conflict. 120,000 Rohingyas were restricted to camps and ghettoes. They need written permission to travel, get married, and have more than two children. Some villages were besieged, and Rohingyas say many men were arrested and then disappeared.
The military's position is that the Muslim Rohingyas are not from Buddhist Myanmar, but are all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and only came to Myanmar under British rule from 1824 and in subsequent waves of illegal entry.
Rohingyas tell us their families have been in this part of Myanmar for generations, some for centuries – and the government previously officially recognised them as one of Myanmar’s ethnic groups.
Myanmar authorities say Rohingya militants from a newly formed group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) were increasingly active and violent in the region. These authorities accuse ARSA of killing Rakhines and Rohingya leaders who did not side with them. Most Rohingyas we spoke to in the camps in Bangladesh say they knew nothing about ARSA and say the military instead targeted many innocent civilians with arrest, death and daily incidents of extortion.
To get an insight into what this “former beacon of democracy” was actually thinking at this time, I needed to track down people who had had direct contact with her ideally at crucial moments of decision-making.
It was a warm sunny Spring day in Geneva and after some chaos at the security gate, we were led up to the rather palatial headquarters of the United Nations human rights Commissioner Zeid al-Hussein. A small protest of pro-democracy activists made faint calls for change in their country across the street.
Zeid was running late. It had been a hectic few days with the release of the UN’s annual human rights report. He was held up with reporters at a press conference all seeking his latest pronouncements on the situations in Syria, North Korea, Yemen, Turkey and Sudan, to name a few.
He was instantly warm and friendly, quietly spoken with a British accent that revealed his top class education and position as a Prince of the Jordanian elite. He took a moment to refocus as he sipped a small double espresso handed to him by one of his aides.
“Right, so, where were we? Ah yes, Myanmar, mass expulsion, mass slaughter – I sometimes fluff this kind of thing, is it ok if we…”
As soon as we started he completely focused, revealing a man who seemed almost physically injured and certainly sickened by the reports of brutality he had read coming back from the investigators.
“Even by the standard we are used to,” he said emphatically, leaning forward, “This was shocking stuff.”
I needed him to tell me a story – not just about what the UN thought, but about his direct contact with Daw Suu at key intervals.
He warmed to it immediately.
“After the disturbances in 2012 and through to the present day, it seemed clear to us that the Rohingya lost more rights in the last five years than they had done in the previous fifty,” he said.
“And this coincided with this moment in 2015 when we suddenly had this push towards elections. Then in 2016, in March, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD [National League for Democracy] assumed power, at least nominally in certain areas of course, and she is State Counsellor.
“We knew there were constitutional limitations in terms of what she could do, but she had enormous international standing and good will on her side, and she had the international press on her side, and one would have thought that even if she had a complicated relationship with the Myanmar military with the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s armed forces] that she could have used the leverage, the influence that she had inside the country – moral and emotional plus the support of the international media – to slowly out-manoeuvre them and take a statesman-like position, or statesperson-like position on these issues.”
In October 2016, ARSA militants attacked three police posts killing nine border officials, according to the Myanmar authorities. Aung San Suu Kyi initially indicated her government would take a measured approach saying no one should be blamed without proof as everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
But the military and border guard police simultaneously launched a brutal crackdown. In the Rohingya village of Dar Gyi Zar witnesses told us the army killed 170 civilians. Video we obtained from this village and verified with people who were there show the bodies of men, women and children who survivors told us the army had killed. Many bodies were burned.
As 90,000 Rohingyas fled the violence, many to Bangladesh, the UN collected testimony.
“I remember thinking when reading about how children were hunted down aged five and six and had their throats slit – well this is ISIS-like stuff and it is happening over and over again,” said Zeid.
“It wasn’t like in one village one testimony about one child, but it was Rakhine-wide and I thought this is unbelievable and then everything else – the sexual violence the savagery of it. The intensity of it really struck me,” he told me.
So the High Commissioner called Aung San Suu Kyi personally.
“I called her up and I said you have moral standing and emotional standing in the country, we need to stop this right away, you have to stop this. I was appealing to her to do something,” he said.
“I think I sent the report to her before I spoke to her because I seem to remember she had at least a vague idea and she said something along the lines of, you know, that we needed to share more evidence with her, or something along those lines, if I seem to remember correctly. But I think within a day or two they began to question the methodology, the facts, whether this was real and so forth…That was the last time I spoke to her.”
Zeid seemed disappointed and not a little exasperated by the responses he had received, it saddened and, I think, angered him.
To get more details on what had happened we went to the Bangkok apartment of a veteran human rights investigator in this region – Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch.
He’s a big guy in a crisp blue shirt, with a disarmingly gruff and friendly New York-style welcome and accent to match.
His general demeanour indicated immediately that he knew this issue inside out, but not in an arrogant way. More like, listen I have been banging this drum for years, where do you want me to start?
In 2016, he was studying satellite imagery showing hundreds of Rohingya villages being burned down. He tried raising the alarm.
“I remember very clearly meeting key ambassadors to say this is not only ethnic cleansing, this is crimes against humanity, there has to be international accountability,” he says.
“But the problem was it was almost like a groupthink had taken over that Aung San Suu Kyi was a saint and somehow if she really knew the real situation she would speak up, but you know we can’t really pressure her too much because we’d destabilise her government and the Myanmar military would take over.
“So as far as the Myanmar military is concerned, the lesson is you can use violence against the Rohingya and get away with it.”
Myanmar is a predominately Buddhist nation.
After so many years of isolation under military rule, it remains conservative and the Buddhist clergy (The Sangha) wield enormous religious, social and political influence. There are said to be as many monks as there are Myanmar’s 400,000 strong armed forces. They had historically led anti-colonial and anti-military movements in the past.
Many of them believe they are engaged in a historic battle to protect Buddhism from Islamic expansion – embodied, to them, by the Rohingya.
The military’s four-month campaign against the Muslim Rohingyas was immensely popular among most Buddhist Burmese who had been whipped up into a nationalist frenzy, believing they were all about to be overrun by Muslim expansionism. Muslims and especially Rohingya Muslims had therefore become a target of national hate and no political leader was standing up for them.
To investigate claims about the Myanmar military’s violent campaign against the Rohingyas, the UN passed a resolution calling on Myanmar to allow a UN fact-finding mission to look into the allegations. Aung San Suu Kyi rejected the resolution and refused to let them in, saying such outside scrutiny would worsen tensions.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid al-Hussein, remembers the moment well. He believes instead of distancing herself from the military at that moment, she sided with them.
“[It was] hugely disappointing because she could have said, ‘High Commissioner, I am under great stress, I'd like to see how I could help you but there are certain things I can’t do and I need to find a way of unlocking this to get you in’, but that wasn’t there and so the impression she was going to be this transformative figure is was slowly beginning to erode. Well not slowly, but quite dramatically, and the impression that a country of fifty million is otherwise doing quite well, but the one million [Rohingya] not … how can you do that?
“So it was a very deep sense of disappointment over this.”
Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch says this was the key moment that Suu Kyi could have provided visas and definitively separated herself philosophically from the military. Instead, by refusing them access she appeared to side with the army on the Rohingya issue.
“They [the UN] said: ‘we need to go to northern Rakhine state’,” recounts Phil Robertson.
She could have said, ‘under the 2008 Constitution, which I don't support, I have no say in that. Please talk to [Commander in Chief] Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, please talk to the military commanders and you will then find out if you can get there. That's not my decision. I’ve done what I can do. If I had a different constitution which fully empowered me as president of the Republic of Myanmar, I would have done whatever you ask me to’.
“She would have created a degree of separation, she would have been seen as part of the solution, she would have also trained the international spotlight where we think it should reside, which is on the actions of the military.
“Instead what we have are reports from different sources that she was concerned if she did something like that, it would mean she’s admitting she doesn't have the power to order the Myanmar military to do what she wants, which everybody knows. It's the worst-kept secret in Myanmar. Why is she concerned about something that every diplomat who’s been in the country one week knows?”
We arranged to meet the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Korean academic Yanghee Lee, inGeneva the day after we had seen Zeid.
We met as she had tea in the foyer. Dressed in a grey jacket with a modern Asian-style collar she exudes sophisticated, highly-educated, considered calm. Not the sort of person who would waste time if you haven’t done your homework.
I asked her to tell me about her direct interactions with Daw Suu. But first, she told me about what she found during her visits to Rakhine State.
Lee had been allowed into some Rohingya villages, but only under tight military and government scrutiny.
“People were speaking to me and they were very scared,” she says in an almost troubled, incredulous voice. “Many of them are very scared to speak to foreigners or outside people because they are scared of reprisal.”
“After I left, they [armed forces] came back and started to question the villagers. The security and the military came and tortured, raped [villagers] because they spoke with me.”
She told me how one boy later drew her a picture of soldiers killing his uncle because he had spoken to her. It haunts her.
Yanghee Lee then met Aung San Suu Kyi, and confronted her about the killings of Rohingyas.
“[She told me] she doesn’t want to have anything to do with the UN because ‘the UN is so one-sided they are not helping the situation. They are the ones, and the foreign journalists, who are creating this you know, we are not’.
“I said but you are not even giving access to the journalists to visit northern Rakhine and she felt that everything was under control. I said there is malnutrition in northern Rakhine. ‘No, no, no, my minister tells me that there is no malnutrition in northern Rakhine. I said ‘wouldn’t you like to visit and see what’s happening on the ground?’ And she says ‘I don’t have to visit because my ministers and everybody is doing their job very well’.
“It was very difficult to interact with her.”
Lee then asked Suu Kyi for more access to the Rakhine State and other parts of the country where the military was accused of the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities.
“The last time I saw her was in July of 2017 and she had already become isolated and she was becoming very defensive and she was saying these were all made up stories, the UN, ‘they are making up these stories’.
“I complained to her, I have these access problems. This is when she said ‘if you carry on the narrative of the UN then you may not get the access, depends on you’, and I thought, ‘are you kidding?’”
“It was a political decision she made,” Lee told me.
“She is a politician and the general sentiment in Myanmar is not favourable to the Rohingyas.”
on the Rohingyas
On August 24, 2017, ARSA militants backed by hundreds of villagers attacked 31 police posts – killing eleven policemen and an immigration officer.
The military responded instantly with a widespread attack on the villages closest to the attacks.
Rohingya villagers and survivors from across northern Rakhine told us the troops entered the villages shooting men, women and children, burning their bodies, and homes, and in some cases engaging in mass rape of women and girls. Video we obtained through the Rohingya activist network showed men, women and children who’d been shot while trying to flee.NGOs estimate more than 7,000 people could have been killed, many more injured with 700,000 fleeing to Bangladesh – more than half a million in a single month. More than 350 Rohingya villages have been partially or completely destroyed and now bulldozed. Entire families have been killed. We obtained first-hand testimony of soldiers throwing young children and babies into burning houses alive.
Three weeks after the campaign began, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first public comments.
She defended the military saying it was operating under strict orders to restrict collateral damage and that there had been no clearance operations since September 5. Human rights groups using satellite images proved at least 66 villages were torched after that date, and many Rohingyas say the attacks went on for weeks.
Yet again Daw Suu refused access to the UN entering the country as part of a fact-finding mission.
To Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch, this made Suu Kyi part of a cover-up of what appears to be acts of mass slaughter by her country’s army.
“This is a failure of political leadership,” he told me.
“It's a failure to develop an astute political strategy to understand that in a situation where you have divided government, where there are certain powers reserved in the Myanmar military in a constitution that was written by the military for the military, you have to be strategically nimble and astute. So far she’s shown neither of these attributes.
“She is now perceived as part of the problem rather than the solution. She is seen as someone who at best is ignorant of what’s going on, and at worst is part of the cover-up.”
Some observers feel the international criticism directed at Aung San Suu Kyi over the Rohingya crisis is unfair.
They say this was a military operation that she has no control over and it is the military that should be held to account and criticised.
One rare critic inside Myanmar is analyst Khin Zaw Win. He spent years in prison for working against military rule. He says Suu Kyi could have stood up against the violence if she hadn’t been more concerned with protecting votes – the electoral support of the Buddhist majority.
“I think the best thing would have been to go there herself,” he told me.
“To give a personal address. ‘OK we hear all these reports of violence, let’s stop it and all talk to each other’. That in a way would have put a break on the military’s continuing operations.
“She didn't even think about going there. She went there much, much later for a day trip, and all along she’s been denying and covering up for the military. It was a lack of moral courage, bad judgment and bad advice. These three things come together, it’s a disaster. She has always been her own mistress. She doesn’t want to listen to advice, she thinks she runs everything and that’s a delusion, sinking deeper and deeper into the mire.”
Soon after the campaign, two Reuters journalists from Myanmar obtained photographic evidence of a mass grave at the village of Inn Din. It showed ten Rohingya men alive and under arrest by soldiers and Rakhine militia. Then the same ten men dead in a mass grave, most having been shot.
One police officer told the court it was a set up, and the journalists were later given some documents by policemen and then instantly arrested. They face 14 years prison under the Official Secrets Act.
In January, the former US Ambassador to the UN and long-term friend of Aung San Suu Kyi’s, Bill Richardson, was in Myanmar. He went there as an advisor to a commission set up by Aung San Suu Kyi to try to resolve long-term underlying issues and tensions in Rakhine State.
Bill Richardson told us about his conversation with Suu Kyi.
“I said, ‘two journalists have been unjustly imprisoned, and you should let them free. That's a bedrock of democracy’.”
“She said, ‘Bill, they violated state secrets. They violated our national security secrets. They're not real journalists.’ I said, ‘they've discovered mass graves, and it could be that the military and your government doesn't want this to come out. Is that the case?’
“That's when we had a huge altercation. That's when I realised she had changed. She had gone from a human rights heroine, a beacon of democracy, to a politician catering to the military, wanting the military to support her, catering to the Buddhist sector. But mainly to the military that is responsible for these enormous human rights violations against the Rohingya. She wants to be popular at home. She wants to get re-elected. She likes this seat of power. That's not the Aung San Suu Kyi I remember. She is walling herself off from reality.
“I think her state of mind is – she's totally convinced – one: that, the Rohingyas are not part of Myanmar. Two: that the international community is against her, the UN's against her, the European Union, the USA is against her, that human rights groups are trying to criticise her unfairly, that Bangladesh is not sincere. It's all everybody's fault except mine, and I'm doing the right thing because I am dealing with the Rohingyas the way I should, which is ship them to Bangladesh and then make it very hard for them to come back.
“That's the crisis.”
We approached Aung San Suu Kyi’s office for an interview and received no reply.
Watch Evan Williams' Dateline investigation, 'Myanmar's Killing Fields':