What are the chances that the appalling humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state could readily have been resolved had Aung San Suu Kyi at least attempted to live up to the ideals she so eloquently articulated during her decades of victimisation at the behest of the nation’s military junta?
Given that she eventually entered into a power-sharing arrangement with the military, which continues to exercise considerable control, not least in matters related to ‘security’, speaking up for the human rights of the Rohingya would in all likelihood have made precious little difference on the ground. That is, of course, an inadequate excuse for not speaking up. The fact that far too many people in Myanmar tend to regard the Rohingya as unworthy of any rights only serves to underline the imperative to provide moral leadership. Far more troubling, however, are persistent indications that Suu Kyi really does not give a damn.
All her comments in recent months conform with the unsustainable official narrative of ‘fake news’, even ‘fake rape’, and the egregious lie — undermined by the BBC’s Jonathan Head — that the Rohingya are burning down their own villages before fleeing to Bangladesh. Her attitude is not all that far removed from that of the army colonel who responded to a query about the military’s sexual violence by lashing out with the comment: “Look at those women who are making these claims — would anyone want to rape them?”
Suu Kyi’s stance has widely been condemned internationally by fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates including Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, as well as many others who unequivocally stood by her during her tribulations and welcomed her elevation two years ago to the post of state counsellor and foreign minister, which made her the de facto prime minister of Myanmar. In reprimanding his “dearly beloved younger sister”, Tutu pointed out: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Most of the critics are entirely justified in calling out the person who admitted in her book Freedom from Fear, “Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.” And in the acceptance speech she was able to give long after receiving the Nobel, she declared: “Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.”
That sentiment certainly helps to explain the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army whose terrorist actions in recent months seem to have provided an excuse for accelerated ‘ethnic cleansing’. Not much is known about Arsa, although some reports suggest its leadership has Saudi roots, Pakistani training and Afghan experience. That may prove hard to verify, but it’s not implausible. After all, Islamist militants are adept at insinuating themselves into situations where they become part of the problem.
Nonetheless, the question of who created the space for Arsa to become a part of the equation points straight back to the authorities in Myanmar, who have gained another excuse for their atrocities. Meanwhile, the charge that some of the international solidarity for the Rohingya comes from sources that are themselves guilty of persecuting ethnic, religious or sectarian minorities is perfectly valid, not least in the case of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose attitude towards Turkey’s Kurdish minority echoes that of the Myanmar authorities towards the Rohingya. Suu Kyi is certainly not the only leader who can be accused of hypocrisy.
It’s not just Turkey, by any means. Several other Muslim countries where popular mobilisations against the maltreatment of the Rohingya have occurred also have a great deal to answer for, not least Pakistan. In the latter case, in fact, there are direct parallels. The plight of the Rohingya has been compared with that of Bosnian Muslims and Rwandan Tutsis in the 1990s, but it is also reminiscent, albeit on a relatively limited scale, of what the people of Bangladesh endured at the hands of the Pakistani armed forces in 1971.
Suu Kyi is among those who have sought to deny the Rohingya their nomenclature alongside various other rights, notwithstanding evidence that they have been part of the Burmese ethnic mosaic for centuries. As The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof points out, they featured in ethno-linguist Francis Buchanan’s Asiatic researches as far back as 1799.
He referred to Muslims “long settled in Arakan … who call themselves Rooinga” and “call the country Rovingaw”. The nation’s ethnic diversity was accepted by newly independent Burma’s founding fathers, who prominently included Suu Kyi’s dad, Gen Aung San.
Its denial 70 years on reflects sadly on Myanmar’s evolution. But the priority for the moment must be to offer as much succour as possible to the ruthlessly brutalised, the displaced and the dispossessed, and so far there is not enough evidence of that.