Free Press Journal

Rohingya crisis and Suu Kyi’s baffling silence

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AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD

In an address to the UN human rights council in Geneva two weeks ago, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the top UN human rights official, said that Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim minority appears to be a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing.  Denouncing the brutal security operation in Rakhine state against the Rohingya, Hussein added that it was ‘clearly disproportionate’ to insurgent attacks by militants last month. More than three lakh people have fled to Bangladesh amid reports of large scale violence, burning of villages and killings

In an address to the UN human rights council in Geneva two weeks ago, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the top UN human rights official, said that Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim minority appears to be a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing. Denouncing the brutal security operation in Rakhine state against the Rohingya, Hussein added that it was ‘clearly disproportionate’ to insurgent attacks by militants last month. More than three lakh people have fled to Bangladesh amid reports of large scale violence, burning of villages and killings. The latest crackdown on the Muslim minority was triggered on August 25 when a Rohingya insurgent group attacked several security posts and killed 12 people.

This is not the first time that violent persecution of Rohingya Muslims has caught international attention and sparked widespread condemnation; similar violence has visited upon them earlier as well.  The last time was in October 2016 when large scale violence broke out after the killing of nine police officers that forced 87,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. Since 2012, Rohingya Muslims have suffered three major waves of violence by government forces and Buddhist nationalists. Tensions have simmered in Rakhine state for decades, with frequent outbreak of violence. But this time the scale of violence and displacement of Rohingya minority community has been unprecedented.


The UN has described the earlier security operations as ‘possible crime’ against humanity. The scale of the latest violence has led to the speculation that the Myanmar military is trying to get rid of the Rohingyas for good. Described as the most persecuted people in the world by the UN, the Rohingyas have been systematically persecuted for decades by the Myanmar government. They live predominantly in Rakine state and have co-existed uneasily for decades alongside Buddhists.

Rohingya people say they are the descendants of Muslims traders, believed to be Persian and Arab, who came to Myanmar generations ago.

Unlike the Buddhists, they speak a language which is similar to a dialect spoken in Chittagong, Bangladesh. There is little sympathy for them among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and are detested by the majority community as ‘illegal immigrants’. Contrary to the evidence, the government also treats them as ‘illegal immigrants’. The Rohingyas suffer from systematic discrimination. They have been denied citizenship rights, access to medical assistance, education and other basic services. There is strict restriction on their freedom of movement. From time to time, gross violation of human rights and international law has made their plight worse.

Silent in this saga is Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Five fellow Nobel peace prize winners have added their voice to international calls for Suu Ki to speak up, take a stand and defend the rights of the helpless minority community of 1.1 million people. Last week Dalai Lama became the latest Nobel peace prize winner to speak about the crisis.

But Suu Kyi’s refusal to speak against violence and large scale displacement of people has been bewildering. She is the first civilian leader of Myanmar in decades. The country was ruled by the military junta for 50 years before allowing elections in 2015. Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in 2012 and her NLD party won a landslide victory in 2015 elections.

Though a civilian government rules the country and Suu Kyi is its de factor leader, military wields considerable power in Myanmar with 25 per cent of seats in parliament. Ever since she returned to Myanmar from her Oxford home in 1988, she has been admired as a moral icon, a champion of democracy and human rights. Probably no other moral icon in the modern world who has been so admired and then fallen from the pedestal as Suu Kyi for her silence, as hundreds of thousands of her fellow citizens are persecuted, massacred and driven from their homes because the military and the majority Buddhists don’t treat them as ‘natural’ Burmese.

If she has spoken on spiralling abuses of human rights violations against the Rohingya minority, it is mainly to defend the government and its actions. Her response to the violence in recent weeks against Rohingyas has been a ‘huge iceberg of misinformation’ for which she blamed the ‘terrorists’. Last year, in her maiden address to UN general assembly as Myanmar’s leader, Suu Kyi won praise for pledging to uphold the rights of minorities. She was due to attend the UN general assembly this week but has decided to skip the event. However, she is expected to give a televised address in Myanmar this week where she will cover the same topics she would have addressed at the UN.

People have urged her to speak but so far she has not said anything that will break her silence in a significant way about the desperate plight and suffering of Rohingya Muslims. “It is not power that corrupts but fear,” Suu Kyi wrote in her famous work Freedom from Fear. “Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.” Suu Kyi shares power with the military and therefore wields limited power.  The military controls key government functions, including the security. Even if she breaks her silence, she may not be able to stop violence and atrocities against the minority community. But her words are her biggest weapon.

She rose to power on the strength of moral authority and therefore has the moral duty and aura to speak for a cause she claimed to champion.

Some say Suu Kyi fears the unpredictable military. Another view is that even if she is hailed as a champion of democracy and human rights, as Myanmar’s state counsellor she is also a politician now. When she was elected to parliament in 2012, there were high hopes that Suu Kyi would help repair the country’s ethnic divide. After her party’s landslide victory in 2015, Suu Kyi was expected to address the issue. Instead she has chosen to dodge it and remained silent. Not surprisingly, her silence and defence of the government on recent wave of violence has sparked widespread condemnation.

The intent behind her silence is incomprehensible. May be she has toned down her opposition to the military. Or, may be her silence will give her more power and influence over the military establishment she shares power with. But she has the moral duty to protect the minority community. As Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a letter to Suu Kyi last week, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is too steep.”

The author is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.