What’s the deal with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya?

There’s been a small but I think growing chorus of observers who are critical of Burmese opposition leader and human rights icon (sort of) Aung San Suu Kyi for the way she’s handled the ongoing genocide of the stateless Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine province. She hasn’t been totally silent; for example, last year she went to Australia to ask the Australian government to care for Rohingya refugees. But she’s had precious little to say about the actions of Rakhine’s Buddhist majority that are creating those refugees in the first place, which seems odd. Suu Kyi has adopted a view of the situation that seems very High Broderist:

“But don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides. This is why I prefer not to take sides. And, also I want to work toward reconciliation between these two communities. I am not going to be able to do that if I take sides,” she said.

Well, I mean, yes, in the most technical sense “violence has been committed by both sides,” but this is a little like going into Poland after the blitzkrieg hit and saying “hey, you know, both sides have been fighting each other here, so let’s just all try to reconcile and move forward, OK?” Or like this:

As I say, the chorus of critics is growing:

“I think everyone agrees now she has been a disappointment when it comes to human rights promotion,” said David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Myanmar.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth was withering in a recent report: “The world was apparently mistaken to assume that as a revered victim of rights abuse she would also be a principled defender of rights.”

Aung Zaw, editor of Myanmar news magazine The Irrawaddy, said that while she remained popular among Burmese, Suu Kyi had eroded some of her domestic support in recent years.

Her failure to speak out on ethnic issues and the communal violence that had wracked the country was “shocking,” he said, and had been met with disappointment in quarters of the country’s ethnic communities.

“People expected her — as she is a Nobel Peace Prize winner — to say a few words to stop the bloodshed,” he said.

Ouch. So why is Suu Kyi refusing to take a firm position against the Rohingya genocide? It would be irresponsible not to speculate, so here’s the possibilities as I see them, listed from “maybe she’s got a point” to “geez, what a jerk”:

  • Suu Kyi really believes that she can be a mediator, and that mediation will be more effective than shaming or strong political action, so she’s keeping her personal feelings to herself. This is what she keeps saying, and you have to allow for the possibility that she means it. If she sees herself as a potential go-between who can stop the violence by appealing to “both sides,” then she’ll wreck her ability to talk with the Rakhine Buddhists if she appears to be biased toward the Rohingya, even if she secretly recognizes what’s really happening. The problem with that line of thinking is, well, what if she’s wrong? What if what the Rohingya really need is for a prominent national figure to talk frankly about what is happening in Rakhine, and what if her measured position is simply giving the Buddhists time and space to carry out their genocide before some hypothetical mediation effort has a chance to come into play?
  • Suu Kyi wants to get back into Burmese politics, and she’s worried about alienating Buddhists. She’s also talked about her political aspirations (“Please don’t forget that I started out as the leader of a political party. I cannot think of anything more political than that,” Suu Kyi said at a Dec. 6 news conference in Rangoon. “Icon was a depiction that was imposed on me by other people.”) as a reason for her refusal to take a strong position on the Rohingya. It’s possible that she believes the only way to help the Rohingya, and the country as a whole, is if she’s able to win political power. But still, this is a less than noble reason to dodge the issue the way she seems to be doing.
  • Suu Kyi really believes that the Rohingya are equally to blame for the violence in Rakhine. I mean, if we’re considering that she really means what she says when she talks about wanting to be a mediator, then I guess we have to consider that she means what she says when she blames both sides equally for what’s happening. This would reflect some kind of real detachment from reality or some heavy anti-Muslim bias, which is why it sort of blends into:
  • Suu Kyi hates the Rohingya and/or Muslims. Hey, just because the Burmese junta held her as a political prisoner all those years doesn’t mean that Suu Kyi must be a wonderful person in every way. Everybody has their good and bad sides, you know? Maybe Aung San Suu Kyi’s bad side is that she’s a bigot.

Without some supporting evidence, it’s unfair to label Suu Kyi a bigot. I suspect that the second point is what’s really behind things. She wants to get back into national politics and she can’t alienate constituencies (the Rohingya, who are officially considered illegal immigrants, are not a constituency, so no worries about alienating them). She may believe that winning high office is the only way she can do anything to alleviate the Rohingya crisis, and she may even have convinced herself that both sides are equally at fault in Rakhine, but mostly I think it’s about her political ambitions. Which is a little disappointing, but I can almost accept the argument that Suu Kyi isn’t obligated to support this or that cause after everything she’s already been through. Almost.

One thought on “What’s the deal with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya?

  1. Not to say anything against anyone in particular, but an unsettling number of major prizes have been handed out to dodgy recipients lately.

    OK, I’ll say it: what a disgrace that the Nobel for Quantum Chemistry went to that hack software salesman, John Pople, while a genius of Jan Linderberg’s caliber was kicked to the side of the road. Screw you, Bjoern Roos, you and your pig headed vendettas. Jan has the admiration of all decent gentlemen and scholars.

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