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To Suu Kyi: Please Break Your Silence

Buddhist monks and other people protest against a visit to Myanmar by a high-level delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in Yangon on Nov. 15, 2013. The OIC general secretary and other members were in the country to assess the situation of Rohingya Muslims. (Reuters Photo/Soe Zeya Tun)

By Jamil Maidan Flores
December 22, 2014

There are all sorts of silence. I remember the silence at night in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul when I was there a few years ago. The silence of holy places, the silence of contemplation, it was sublime.

There’s the comforting silence that binds one to a beloved because all the loving words have been said and there’s no need for more. In a world that can’t stop its chatter, this silence is precious, golden.

There’s the stony silence of the tyrant that says: I’m above dialogue. Just obey. There’s the practical silence of the timid that says: OK, I know when to shut up.

Then there’s the silence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s a burden that she bears like an albatross on her neck. It consists of her inability to say one word, “Rohingya.”

For in all of Myanmar that word is taboo. All but a few brave ones observe the embargo. This is a way members of the Buddhist majority show contempt for a Muslim ethnic minority group in western Rakhine State that self-identifies as Rohingya.

There are as many as 1.1 million Rohingya. Scores have died in recent spates of ethno-religious violence. Some 100,000 have fled the country to escape persecution and deprivation of their rights to social services, health care, education and livelihood. As many as six generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar, yet they’re denied citizenship.

Instead of Rohingya, they’re called Bengali to pass them off as recent runaways from Bangladesh. They’re not welcome in Bangladesh. Nor anywhere else. They’re most unwelcome in the only country they’ve known, the country where they and their fathers were born.

Thus the taboo. It’s a way of telling the Rohingya: You don’t exist. You’ve no right to exist. And if you don’t conveniently disappear, we will make you cease to exist.

It takes courage to defy this taboo. No doubt, Aung San Suu Kyi is a courageous woman. For years she defied the repressive junta that once ruled Myanmar and she suffered stoically for her defiance. But strangely she doesn’t stand up to this taboo, this hoax of religious and ethnic prejudice, this sneaky execution of cold-blooded injustice. Nor does she meekly endure it. She embraces it.

She has been quoted as explaining: “I am not silent because of political calculation. I am silent because, whoever’s side I stand on, there will be more blood. If I speak up for human rights, [the Rohingya] will only suffer. There will be more blood.”

Lady, the surest guarantee that there will be more blood is your silence. For in cases like this, common sense interprets silence as consent. Acquiescence. The message you’re inadvertently sending is: It’s OK to exterminate the Rohingya.

Granted, if you do break your silence, there may still be more blood. But with the immense prestige of your Nobel Peace Prize, your heroic past and your illustrious bloodline, there’s a chance that breaking your silence will staunch the blood flow. Perhaps a small chance but real. If only for that, you’re under moral obligation to scream.

And, Lady, nobody is asking you to take new sides. As democracy icon, you’re supposed to be on the side of justice and human rights. You’re only being asked to stand where you’re supposed to have always been from the very beginning.

Your many new critics — some of them your admirers — say you’ve thrown away statesmanship to become a common politician. They have a point.

But your true supporters mustn’t give up on you. We must keep challenging your silence until one day soon, weary of its weight, you break it. Then you retrieve the moral compass you lost in the rough and tumble of local politics.

And maybe in all Myanmar the taboo will dissipate.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy.

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