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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 02   01-15 June 2015

Aung San Suu Kyi: Where are you?

By Jonah Fisher

For close to two decades no-one accused Aung San Suu Kyi of lacking principles or courage. From the early 1990s until her final release from house arrest in 2010 she was a brave symbol of defiance against what was then a brutal military dictatorship. Ms Suu Kyi's image was on student walls around the world, Bono even wrote a song about her. She became synonymous with the global struggle for democracy and human rights. Now at liberty, living in the same Yangon house but in a much-changed country, Aung San Suu Kyi is free to speak her mind. But she's selective about her causes.

In parliament, where she sits as an opposition MP, the 69-year-old frequently criticises the government for the slow pace of reform, and restates her increasingly forlorn demands for constitutional change. But on the persecution of Myanmar's most famously forgotten minority Ms Suu Kyi is silent.


For decades, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have lived in Rakhine State, near the country's western border with Bangladesh. They've become well-known in the last few weeks, but long denied citizenship and freedom of movement, their misery is nothing new. There's huge disagreement over how most of them got there, where they belong and what they should be called.

So, in a facile step that instantly alienates most of Myanmar, I'm going to put history to one side. On a purely human level, there are currently about 800,000 people in western Myanmar, denied the most basic of rights and discriminated against due to the circumstances of their birth. They've been fleeing into the hands of cruel trafficking rings because they're poor and desperate. From a simple human rights perspective it's a continuing outrage that should shame us all. So why, despite the calls from around the world is Ms Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, reluctant to raise her voice?

Election thinking

The simplest explanation, voiced repeatedly over the last few weeks, is that she's always been a pragmatic politician not a human rights activist. By defending the Rohingya, Ms Suu Kyi would immediately put herself at odds with powerful Buddhist nationalist groups, potentially changing the dynamics of this year's all important general election. An already unpredictable vote would become super-charged with religious and ethnic tensions.

There was some evidence of Ms Suu Kyi's extreme caution earlier this year when United Nations envoy Yanghee Lee visited. After Ms Lee highlighted the plight of the Rohingya, the monk Ashin Wirathu delivered a vulgar speech describing the South Korean in derogatory terms.

It was demeaning and outrageous and the UN's human rights chief in Geneva soon called on all of Myanmar's leaders to condemn the monk. Opposition leader Ms Suu Kyi remained silent. That's despite Yanghee Lee being Asian, female, a human rights advocate and being described in the most misogynistic language possible in Ms Suu Kyi's home town. It didn't look good.

Big picture

Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters say it's not because she doesn't care, but that she sees this sort of issue as a trap. Giving a strong quote on the Rohingya or Yanghee Lee might hand out a bloody nose or two and satisfy the human rights lobby, but it won't actually change anything on the ground. The big picture for Ms Suu Kyi they say, is to win the election in November and prepare the ground for the complex negotiations on power that will follow.

With ethnic minority parties likely to pick up a chunk of the seats, and a quarter automatically allocated to the army, Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), needs to dominate the ethnically Bamar constituencies. To do that she'll need the support of the monks and a solid claim to be patriotically defending the Buddhist state. Sadly there are only votes to be lost in Rohingya rights.

Who are the Rohingyas?

  • Rohingyas are a distinct, Muslim ethnic group mainly living in Myanmar
  • They are thought to be descended from Muslim traders who settled there more than 1,000 years ago
  • They also live in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
  • In Myanmar, they are subjected to forced labour, have no land rights and are heavily restricted
  • In Bangladesh many are also desperately poor, with no documents or job prospects

European echoes?

But there's another aspect to this. Underpinning the demands for Aung San Suu Kyi to "speak out" is the assumption, particularly from abroad, that she's concealing her more liberal beliefs for political reasons. Well what if she's not? Just because you've been given the Nobel Peace Prize doesn't mean you sign up to a particular set of values. Just ask Henry Kissinger. Maybe Ms Suu Kyi agrees with the Burmese authorities that they need to act to make sure that Myanmar's character remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, and that Muslim populations are growing too rapidly. Would it be that surprising if she shared the widely held Burmese view that the Rohingya belong back in Bangladesh?

If parts of this debate are starting to sound familiar, blank out the ethnicities and the country's names. Put France, England, Eritreans or Syrians back in. In European capitals these sort of views are being expressed every day by mainstream politicians about that continent's migrant crisis.

(Source: BBC News, 2 June, 2015)

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