Silence is neither noble nor kindAung San Suu Kyi’s silence and evasiveness in regard to the Rohingya genocide denigrates her moral capital
In 1991, at the time Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest imposed by Burma’s military junta, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her decades long effort to establish democracy in Myanmar. The citation for the award read: “… the Committee wanted to show its support to many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.”
Suu Kyi’s efforts started to see results in 2010. She was released from house arrest, and Myanmar’s first election under the junta was held in November of that year. Suu Kyi, now a free person, delivered her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2012.
In that speech, she identified “kindness” as the “most precious lesson” that she learned from her struggle. She described kindness as the ability “to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others,” and stated that “Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart”.
Fast forward to 2017. Much has changed in Myanmar and Suu Kyi’s life since that speech. Myanmar is under intense international scrutiny for army brutality against the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic group. Suu Kyi’s halo as a crusader of human rights is darkening fast because of her apparent indifference to the plight of the Rohingyas.
The National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, won by a landslide in the 2015 election and Suu Kyi became State Counsellor—de-facto Prime Minister—in March 2016. The ethnic minorities in Burma, including the Rohingya, had hoped that with Suu Kyi’s accession to power, the historical wrongs visited upon them would be reversed; Myanmar would be a free country where everyone would be equal.
Ethnic issues in Myanmar are complex and have roots going back to the 1950s. Spasms of riots by minorities and their brutal suppression by the government have been a part of Myanmar’s rural life for a long time. In the last year, under Suu Kyi’s watch, Myanmar has seen more ethnic violence, with increased intensity and brutality, than ever before. Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state are amongst the worst affected.
The treatment of the Rohingya Muslims is rooted in a government narrative that presents them as illegal Bengali migrants whose only objectives are to annul the centrality of Buddhism in Myanmar, and to take advantage of the country’s rich resources. The ruling junta therefore refers to them as “Bengalis,” while Suu Kyi calls them “the Muslims of the Rakhine state.” The denial of their existence as a distinct ethnic group has also been manifested in such legislation as the 1982 Citizenship Law, which denied them their political and legal rights.
The army burned down hundreds of Rohingya dwellings in 2012 following the Muslim-Buddhist riots of that year.
In October 2016, armed insurgents retaliated, attacking police outposts along
the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, killing nine police officers. A counter attack
by the army led to the destruction of more Rohingya villages and the murder of the insurgents.
On August 25, 2017 the insurgents struck again and the military responded by engaging in what the United Nations described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The international body also concluded that the military action “probably constituted crimes against humanity”. The violence has resulted in more than 519,000 Rohingyas taking refuge in Bangladesh.
Fall from grace
In the midst of all of this, Suu Kyi has largely remained silent. When she spoke, she seemed to echo the army’s version of the events. Commenting on the exodus of the Rohingyas, she said: “50 percent of the villages are still intact” and rebuffed Rohingya women’s complaint of rape by army personnel as “fake rape”.
History abounds with erstwhile freedom fighters turning into dictators or “illiberal democrats” after they come to power. One need not go too far to see this. Look at the trio of Deuba, Oli and Dahal, for example. After years of claiming to be fighting for people’s rights, they turned into bloated plutocrats and vandalised our democracy, causing its current sad state. We live in an era where moral leadership in politics is in severe shortage.
No one expected Suu Kyi to bring peace to Myanmar’s ethnic conflict overnight, but everyone expected her to be true to herself, to use her moral capital to speak out without equivocation about the army’s brutality towards a whole race in response to the violent rebellion of a few.
Her silence and evasiveness have disappointed the whole world and brought condemnation from many who considered her a beacon of moral righteousness. She must, with urgency, take policy initiatives to remedy the injustices of the past. She must speak up and respond to the current crisis with sensitivity, human warmth and with the kindness she once called her “most precious lesson”. This would lighten many heavy hearts.
Silence in the face of atrocities is neither noble nor kind.
- Koirala is a geotechnical engineer based in Vancouver, Canada