A Nobel Peace Prize winner once hailed as her country’s Nelson Mandela has stood by as ethnically motivated violence and mass atrocities tear apart her country.
Democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 (out of 21) years under military house arrest in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Largely locked away for chunks of time from the end of the 1990s through the early years of this century, she earned a global reputation for quiet strength in the face of a brutal military junta. Suu Kyi refused to leave her country, even though it meant forgoing a life with her sons and husband, who lived overseas.
That stoicism won her comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. She became something of a pop culture icon as well. U2’s Bono wrote a song dedicated to her; her cause was championed by film stars like Julia Roberts and Kevin Spacey. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 — but received it in person only in 2012, after her release in 2010. Her party swept elections in a landslide victory in 2015, making her the de facto civilian leader of her country.
Now her reputation is rapidly disintegrating because of her refusal to speak out about — or take meaningful steps to prevent — the military crackdown targeting the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 300,000 Rohingya refugees have streamed across the border to Bangladesh over the past two weeks alone, running from what appears to be a crackdown on their villages by the military that still controls crucial aspects of Burma’s government, including the state security apparatus.
On Monday Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, the United Nation’s High Commissioner on Human Rights told that body’s Human Rights Council in Geneva this was a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
“I call on the government to end its current cruel military operation, with accountability for all violations that have occurred, and to reverse the pattern of severe and widespread discrimination against the Rohingya population,” al-Hussein said.
The Dalai Lama has also begged for an end to the violence. “Buddha (would have) definitely helped those poor Muslims,” he said this weekend, “So, still I feel that (it's) so very sad ... so sad." And on Friday Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another Nobel laureate, implored Suu Kyi to break her silence.
It is the second such major wave of violence in the past 12 months. The Rohingya who cross the border come with stories of indiscriminate killings and mass rape, and of villages burned to the ground and unrelenting persecution — all at the hands of the Burmese military. Their testimony only reaches the world through escapees; international aid groups and the United Nations are denied access to Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. The press has little to no access too; the stories told by the press are brought by those who have crossed over.
This latest violence came from violence: The Rohingya have a small armed faction that attacked police stations on August 25; some reports claim 110 died in the raids, including 12 police officers. But the indiscriminate and brutal response by the military has been widely criticized by the international community as radically disproportionate and approaching genocidal.
And yet Suu Kyi has said, and done, almost nothing.
Suu Kyi has been largely silent in the face of violence
Suu Kyi’s sole public statement about the blanket repression of the Rohingya has been a Donald Trump-style denial.
In a telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, she blamed fake news, and misinformation. (A Turkish government minister had apparently tweeted about the disaster, but used images from other crises.)
“That kind of fake information which was inflicted on the deputy prime minister was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation,” Suu Kyi’s office said in a statement, “calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.”
While some of the images disseminated on social media were false, the crisis is all too real — and is sparking growing concern around the world.
“The authorities in Myanmar must take determined action to put an end to this vicious cycle of violence and provide security and assistance to all those in need," UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement on Tuesday.
Guterres underscored that the situation "risks degenerating into a humanitarian catastrophe with implications for peace and security that could continue to expand beyond Myanmar's borders."
Though Suu Kyi does not hold legal sway over the military’s treatment of the Muslim minority, a statement from her that explicitly condemns sectarian violence and repression would go far. “It is the military that has control of power in very, very key parts of the state,” Olof Blomqvist, a researcher with Amnesty International in London, told me on Tuesday.
“That’s not to absolve Suu Kyi of responsibility — she has a political and moral responsibility to speak out to stem this violence,” he added. “She hasn’t and that is hugely disappointing.”
This is in part because it’s not the first time she has failed to acknowledge an unfolding crackdown against a group that the UN has called the “world’s most persecuted minority.” In an April interview with the BBC, she explicitly insisted the actions against the Rohingya were not ethnic cleansing. And back in October, she seemed dismissive of the issue when she told a press conference “show me a country without human rights issues.” She has consistently seemed reluctant to criticize the military’s actions.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority group who live, primarily, in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. (Myanmar, a Buddhist majority country, is made up of seven states. Rakhine rests on the Bay of Bengal on the border of Bangladesh.) The Rohingya have been systematically discriminated against for the last several decades, and were stripped of citizenship by the military leadership in 1982.
The government of Myanmar officially recognizes 135 ethnic minorities. The (approximately) 1 million members of the Rohingya community are not among them. They are considered a stateless people. Even the term Rohingya is shunned by the Buddhist ruling elite; they have asked the international community not to use the name. Instead they call the Rohingya “Bengali” — in essence, labeling them immigrants and foreigners.
But many Rohingya claim Burmese roots stretching back generations. According to Human Rights Watch, there were several waves of Rohingya migration to what’s now Myanmar: in the late 18th century, the 19th century, the 1940s, 1970s and again in the 1990s.
In the past several decades, successive waves of violence have devastated the Rohingya community, particularly in the years since the military passed a discriminatory citizenship law in 1982 that excluded the Muslim minority from state protections and benefits. Many live in abject poverty.
In the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh trying to escape rape, violence, and forced labor. In 2012, according to Human Rights Watch, sectarian violence between ultra-nationalist Buddhists and the Muslim minority led to destroyed mosques, homes, numerous deaths, and the displacement of more than 150,000 Rohingya. Internally displaced Rohingya have lived in refugee camps in the years since.
In 2015, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum sent a fact-finding team to the region.
“We saw firsthand the Rohingya’s physical segregation, which has resulted in a modern form of apartheid, and the devastating impact that official policies of persecution are having on them,” the resulting report explained. “We left Burma deeply concerned that so many preconditions for genocide are already in place.”
The newest crackdown on the Rohingya was triggered by an attack made by a small armed faction of Rohingya called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on August 25, which took the lives of 12 Burmese police officers. To date, according to the BBC, ARSA has killed some 20 Burmese officers. (It previously operated under other names.) They are said to be armed with knives and crude implements.
The events that followed the August attacks closely mirror those of last fall: In October 2016, ARSA killed nine Burmese border guards. The ensuing military crackdown on the Rohingya led to an exodus of some 66,000 community members for the border. By all reports, they fled unrelenting horrors. Many have since been living in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.
A report issued by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in February of this year revealed the extent of the brutality experienced by the Rohingya in the aftermath of the fall 2016 crackdown. In 204 interviews with Rohingya refugees, details emerged about mass gang rapes and indiscriminate killings — including of children. Of 101 women interviewed, more than half had been raped. The army, according to refugee reports, deliberately set fire to homes, schools, and buildings, sometimes forcing members of the community into the burning structures.
Especially revolting were the accounts of children – including an eight-month old, a five-year-old and a six-year-old – who were slaughtered with knives. One mother recounted how her five-year-old daughter was trying to protect her from rape when a man “took out a long knife and killed her by slitting her throat.” In another case, an eight-month-old baby was reportedly killed while his mother was gang-raped by five security officers.
The UN High Commissioner report concluded it was a very “likely” case of crimes against humanity and deplored the inability of independent international observers to gain access the region.
As Amnesty International’s Blomqvist put it, “What we are seeing now, in the last week, is almost history repeating itself in a horrific way.”
He explained that, last fall, Amnesty spoke to refugees in Bangladesh, captured satellite imagery of the devastated towns, and catalogued abuses — including soldiers killing people who were trying to flee, as well as stories of rape and torture. Most worrisome, he said, were that the numbers of refugees this week are already higher than last fall.
"The brutality is unthinkable. They're killing children. They're killing women. They're killing the elderly. They're killing able-bodied men and boys," human rights activist Matthew Smith told NPR’s Michael Sullivan on Monday. "It's indiscriminate."
There is a growing clamor for Suu Kyi to speak up on behalf of the Rohingya
From Indonesia to Chechnya, protestors in Muslim majority nations have taken to the streets to denounce the violence against the Rohingya.
The anger against both the violence and Suu Kyi’s moral silence, has brought a stream of condemnations. On Sunday Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani human rights activist who was shot by the Taliban in response to her activism on behalf of girls, used Twitter to underscore the failings inherent in the Burmese leader’s silence.
On Friday, Archbishop Desmond Tutu also used Twitter to implore Suu Kyi to use her podium. "If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” he wrote.
It’s not the first time that one of Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Prize laureate has criticized Myanmar’s response to military’s crackdown on Rohingya.
In December 2016, following two months of violence last fall, more than a dozen Nobel laureates and other prominent global figures, issued a Facebook statement bemoaning violence against the Rohingya — and to deplore Suu Kyi’s lack of leadership. “We are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas,” they wrote.
Speaking to the BBC this past Monday, Yanghee Lee, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights, also called on Suu Kyi to make a statement. “The de facto leader needs to step in,” Lee said. “That is what we would expect from any government, to protect everybody within their own jurisdiction.”
Suu Kyi’s response on Wednesday morning, blaming the attacks on the military and seeming to put more weight on the import of “fake” news and concern about terror than the very real reports of those refugees streaming out towards Bangladesh, was met with derision by human rights groups.
“This is a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe. In her first comments on the crisis, instead of promising concrete action to protect the people in Rakhine state, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be downplaying the horrific reports coming out of the area,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response director, said in a statement emailed to the press.
In Suu Kyi’s 2012 Nobel prize acceptance speech she herself offered a path toward what her moral obligation might be: “A positive aspect of living in isolation was that I had ample time in which to ruminate over the meaning of words and precepts that I had known and accepted all my life. As a Buddhist, I had heard about dukha, generally translated as suffering, since I was a small child,” she said.
She spoke of the need to alleviate suffering, to abide by the rule of law. And she spoke of her love for universal human rights, and hope for national reconciliation. “Ultimately our aim,” she said “should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.”