SINGAPORE (Nov 19): It was only three years ago, after the watershed elections in November 2015 that saw Aung San Suu Kyi transition from democracy icon under house arrest to Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader, that Myanmar began to emerge from years of economic isolation. In 2016, the US lifted some of its economic sanctions; in 2017, there were 3.44 million tourist arrivals into the country, 18% more than the year before.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar government has made considerable effort to entice foreign direct investment and spur local enterprise. It has passed new laws to make it easier to start companies and do business in the country. Myanmar is now one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia. According to World Bank estimates, the country saw economic growth of 5.9% between 2016 and 2017, and growth is projected at 6.4% for this year.

Yet, whatever progress Myanmar is experiencing is bound to be affected and overshadowed by the continuing human rights catastrophe involving the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya, who have fled from a violent crackdown in Rakhine State. The actions of the military and security forces have been called “genocide” by the United Nations.

In August, the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, led by former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, released a report detailing human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”, committed by the military and other security forces.

According to the UN, the crimes include murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and enslavement. “In addition, in Rakhine State, the elements of the crimes against humanity of extermination and deportation are also present,” the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement on the report.

Surely economic progress is incompatible with such conduct? The other countries where such violence is also taking place are Syria, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Central African Republic — all are mired in hardship and economic decline.

In their way, Asean leaders have addressed the Rohingya crisis at their recent summit here. Discussions were summarised in the leaders’ statement on Nov 13, though it was in paragraph 37, out of 47, and under the section titled “Asean Socio-Cultural Community”, coming after summaries of discussions on an Asean identity, health and digital literacy, among others.

The statement said leaders “discussed and received a briefing from Myanmar on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State, which is a matter of concern”.

It also said: “We expect the Independent Commission of Enquiry established by the Government of Myanmar to seek accountability by carrying out an independent and impartial investigation of the alleged human rights violations and related issues.”

The leaders also noted that Bangladesh and Myanmar were beginning the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. “We stand ready to support Myanmar in its repatriation process,” the statement read. “We also welcomed Myanmar’s commitment to ensuring safety and security for all communities in Rakhine State as effectively as possible, and to facilitating the voluntary return of displaced persons to Myanmar in a safe, secure and dignified way.”

The repatriation has sparked concern, not least because people will be sent back to where they had fled in fear for their lives.

Separately, there was the tense exchange between US Vice-President Mike Pence and Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the meetings. Pence told Suu Kyi that he was “anxious to hear about the progress” that she and her government was making in holding accountable those responsible for the violence. Suu Kyi’s response: “We can say we understand our country better than any other country does.”

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 857, week of Nov 19) which is on sale now. Subscribe here