Why Aung San Suu Kyi is silent on the Rohingya crisis
In Depth: is Myanmar’s de facto leader unable to stop the slaughter - or unwilling?
Aung San Suu Kyi will be thousands of miles away when the UN discusses the Rohingya refugee crisis that has seen some 370,000 fleeing Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Almost 20,000 refugees are still crossing the border every day, bringing with them stories of murder, rape and brutality by security forces in Rakhine state. Yet Myanmar’s de facto leader cancelled her plans to attend the UN General Assembly in New York, which began yesterday.
A spokesman for the presidential office told CNN that Suu Kyi called off her trip for two reasons: the situation in Rakhine and the possiblity of terrorist attacks. But those hoping that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate stayed home to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis will probably be disappointed.
The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority population of about 1.1 million people who many in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar view as “illegal immigrants”. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has called the increasingly violent attacks on Rohingya in recent weeks a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, Al Jazeera reports.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister has characterised the situation as “genocide”. Diplomats who attended briefings in Bangladesh over the weekend said that as many as 3,000 people may have been killed so far, a much higher estimate than the 1,000 previously reported by the UN.
Why has Suu Kyi failed to act?
Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, all countries with majority Muslim populations, have put increasing pressure on Myanmar to halt the violence, without success. Suu Kyi’s supporters point to her lack of control over a military that under the constitution automatically holds a quarter of the parliamentary seats and that can seize power by declaring a state of emergency.
But fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu criticised Suu Kyi’s apparent willingness to remain quiet in order to cling to power. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” Tutu wrote to her in a letter quoted in The Independent.
Even before the latest humanitarian crisis began at the end of August, Suu Kyi “displayed a disconcerting sensibility regarding Muslims in Myanmar”, preserving laws that deny Rohingya essential rights, CNN reports.
The BBC’s Fergal Keane says Suu Kyi is unlikely to ever concede that the Rohingya Muslims are being subjected to ethnic cleansing, “not even when tens of thousands are being burned from their homes amid widespread reports of killing and sexual violence”.
The latest crisis erupted when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked several police posts, killing 12 people, and security forces subsequently initiated a crackdown.
Although the main Rohingya militant group declared a one-month ceasefire, Myanmar brushed off the notion, with government spokesman Zaw Htay announcing that Myanmar would not negotiate with “terrorists”.
This is not the first crisis involving the Rohingyas; nor is it the first time Suu Kyi has been criticised for her silence. Five years ago, during a campaign that displaced more than 100,000 Rohingya, Suu Kyi - Myanmar’s symbol of democracy and defiance in the face of tyranny - also kept quiet. It is the absence of intervention, even rhetorical intervention, that disturbs many of her critics, but the BBC’s Keane insists the problem is more complex.
“It goes further than silence,” he says. “Her diplomats are working with Russia and the UN to prevent criticism of the government at Security Council level, and she herself has characterised the latest violence as a problem of terrorism.”
In a rare statement issued recently about the crisis, Al Jazeera reports, Suu Kyi also blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about the violence.
Suu Kyi certainly isn’t alone in maintaining silence on the Rohingyas. Since 2011, Myanmar has seen a surge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly violence, the International Crisis Group said in a report released last week.
Since Suu Kyi’s political party was elected almost two years ago, the government has tried to curtail Buddhist nationalism, but those efforts have been largely ineffective “and have probably even enhanced them”, the report says.
Part of the problem, says Al Jazeera, is that many Burmese lived through almost 60 years of violence under a military government before Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party came to power.
“They are content to reap the fruits of an economic and social revival that has afforded them the chance to live out their lives in relative peace,” according to Al Jazeera, even at the expense of hundreds of thousands of homeless Rohingyas.
And, at least for now, it appears Suu Kyi intends to remain silent along with them.