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Where even angels fear to tread

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech during a ceremony to mark the country's 66th Independence Day at the National Leagure for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon, on Jan 4, 2014. Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday, Jan 4, 2014, called on the powerful military to get involved in reforming the country's junta-era constitution, which currently bars her from becoming president. -- (Photo: AFP)

By John Teo
January 10, 2014

WHEN Buddhist mobs in Myanmar pillaged and ravaged settlements of the country's hapless Rohingya Muslim communities last year, with police apparently standing idly by, outraged global citizens looked to the great and brave democracy and human-rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi to come forth with an unambiguous condemnation.

To the consternation of many (this writer included), the Nobel peace laureate stayed uncharacteristically silent. Only much later was she moved to explain that the very embodiment of all that is right and moral that she is, simply refuses to take sides.

Thus did Suu Kyi cross the Rubicon from courageous moral compass to serious political player with frank and undisguised ambitions to be Myanmar's future president.

As a Buddhist in a Buddhist-majority country (and married to someone from the "Christian West"), she needed not only to choose her words extremely carefully, but also pick her fights with equally extreme caution.

For, as Suu Kyi probably correctly surmised, what good would her condemnation of the Rohingya outrages do apart from assuaging the sensibilities of her mostly foreign critics if all it did would be to alienate the vast majority of her people who, presumably, while not necessarily approving the tactics and violence of a radical mob, have precious little love lost for the Rohingya to begin with?

Switch next to goings-on in our own country right now, with the "Allah" issue flaring up anew, dialling political temperatures up by several notches once again.

Despite the fact that our situation, though with similar religious connotations, is nowhere near comparison to the savagery witnessed in Myanmar, some here are also demanding now that our leaders speak up.

Religious issues, or more accurately, issues to do with the in-country interactions of religious communities, are necessarily extremely sensitive and can be so touchy that even known angels (in the person of one Aung San Suu Kyi, for example), dare not tread onto. Not with needless public utterances anyway, lest they be misinterpreted or worse, as they are wont to be in such matters. It's damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Leaders, thinking about the greatest good of the greatest number in any given society, may be placed in an unenviable position.

In our case, things are not helped by the president of Sarawak Barisan Nasional component, Parti Rakyat Sarawak, Tan Sri Dr James Masing, throwing his own figurative incendiary device into the volatile mix with the charge that the government he is a part of is appeasing all comers and pleasing none in not coming out with a more forthright policy over the "Allah" issue.

It is also not helped by the likes of Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir accusing unnamed leaders (was she referring to Selangor state leaders on whose shoulders matters to do with Islam in the state fall exclusively?) of inelegant silence over the latest spate of related controversy over the issue.

Governments, as Myanmar's Suu Kyi knows even without any experience of being in government yet, have much larger interests than to be seen taking sides in impossibly incendiary matters to do with something as personal and emotive as religious differences.

That Suu Kyi chose to maintain what by Marina's standards would surely be inelegant (if not even far worse) silence may even be lauded (or, at least, understood) as a rare statesman-like act of simply refusing to act upon popular or populist pressures to take religious sides openly.

Some will no doubt argue that there are larger issues than mere religious differences involved. Maybe so, but they are still issues tinged with strong religious overtones and therefore issues for which unambiguous pronouncements by non-religious leaders may not actually offer the clarity to effectively solve such matters to the satisfaction of the majority, be it of the moral or religious sort.

Thus, there is little choice but to muddle through and search for a newly acceptable middle path over a vastly complicated and emotionally-charged issue. Yes, it may be inelegant. Yes, it may be appeasement. But unless well-meaning Malaysians (politicians or others) have anything better to offer than taking the easy moral high ground on this matter, they would do well to at least not add to the already highly combustible debate as it is.

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