Aung San Suu Kyi loses her gloss for failing to denounce killings
Where is Suu Kyi's famous 'moral authority' as Muslim Rohingya homes are razed to the ground?
CHIANG MAI - The iconic international image of Burma's charismatic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is rapidly losing its lustre as she maintains her silence on the continuing violence in her country's westernmost Rakhine State.
The violence began in June, sparked by allegations that a Buddhist girl had been raped by Muslim men. After an uneasy lull, Buddhists again went on the rampage last week, killing more than 100 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority community, who have been suffering severe state persecution for decades.
Aerial photographs taken from the region show large areas of Muslim-populated towns and villages razed to the ground. About 70,000 people have so far lost their homes in the violence.
The Rohingya policy followed by the current government differs little from the discrimination inflicted by the military junta that ruled Burma for the past 50 years. Most Rohingya are regarded as non-Burmese Bengalis and are locked out of Burma's political and social structure and denied fundamental rights guaranteed by citizenship.
"Suu Kyi has lost much of her credibility because of her silence over these appalling events," SOAS University of London researcher Guy Horton told The Week. "Her evasiveness on one of the greatest human rights tragedies in the world today has lost her the commodity she has always had in abundance - her moral authority."
Horton is the author of a report on human rights violations in eastern Burma, Dying Alive, which contributed to the UN Security Council resolution in 2007 'Burma: A Threat to the Peace'.
Veteran Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner explained Suu Kyi's dilemma. If she condemned the attacks on Muslims, he told The Week, "many Buddhists - her main constituency - would turn against her. But if she says nothing, she'll lose credibility in the international community.
"She appears to have chosen the latter, and, consequently, criticism against her is growing among international human rights organisations and activists. From her point of view, that may be preferable to having domestic opinion, which is fiercely anti-Rohingya, turn against her."
Lintner, author of several books on Burma, who had talks with Suu Kyi in the Burmese capital Naypyidaw earlier this month, said she was already under pressure at home. "The problem is that her silence on the clashes in Rakhine state as well as the ongoing government military offensive against the Kachins in the north have already cost her a lot of popular support."
There are few Kachins who express any sympathy for Suu Kyi these days, Lintner went on, and even the Shan leader Khun Htun Oo said in an interview while he was in the US last month that she has become "neutralised". Many young Burmese are also becoming critical of her for other reasons, arguing that she has moved far too close to the government and the military.
But does Suu Kyi have any choice, if she wants to win the 2015 election? Guy Horton believes other great leaders "would have reacted differently and grasped the nettle...
"Gandhi, for instance, went on hunger strike to try to stop exactly the kind of horror of what is being inflicted in Rakhine State today. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King - moral leaders with whom she is compared - would have shown solidarity with the victims and called for passive resistance. Instead, she has just collected prizes - including the US Congressional Medal of Honour - from a fawning world."
In Horton's view, it's no exaggeration to say that what is happening in Rakhine State is similar to the persecution endured by the Jews in 1930s Germany.
"It should be noted that a call by President Thein Sein for the deportation of the Rohingya or their forcible transfer into camps amounts to an incitement to commit a crime against humanity, as defined in the Rome Statute," Horton told The Week.
"In addition, the destructive targeting of a racial/religious group may amount to a form of genocide. The UN Special Rapporteur on Burma should renew his call for an investigation into crimes against humanity in Burma, which are not subject to the whims of political feasibility."
However, Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, has a different view, telling the Associated Press: "Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this. She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She's a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote."
Horton challenged Zarni's view: "If she adopts such a position of cynical Realpolitik the long-term consequences are that she will lose not only her moral credibility, but the support of most ethnic people and possibly the 2015 election itself."