Suu Kyi’s dilemma over Rohingya issue
By Mikha Chan
July 13, 2016
Perhaps we shouldn't judge her too harshly, considering the incredible pressure she faces from all quarters.
Until her party won a landslide victory in last year’s elections in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi was for nearly half a century the global face of peaceful political opposition. The 71-year-old stateswoman has received numerous international accolades for her long fight for democracy and human rights, including the Nobel Peace Prize, the US Congressional Gold Medal and the Rafto Prize.
It is perhaps this pivotal role that she has played in the annals of democracy that rankles most deeply today among human rights activists in the face of the persecution of the Rohingya community in her country.
We are familiar with her thoughts on the oppressing power of fear, having seen and heard of her fight for freedom under the notoriously dictatorial military junta of the 90s. She lived in a system that “denies the existence of basic human rights”, in which “fear tends to be the order of the day”, as she wrote in her 1991 anthology “Freedom from Fear”.
“It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear,” Suu Kyi wrote. “Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”
At the time, Suu Kyi was speaking of the plight of political activists under the junta’s rule. However, her words apply all the more aptly today to the situation faced by the Rohingya community in the Rakhine region of Myanmar. Fear is the order of the day for the Muslim minority there, violently persecuted by the nation’s Buddhist nationalists who see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh instead of a community that should have long been recognised as Myanmar nationals by virtue of their having lived in the country for generations.
Suu Kyi’s silence on the matter, as well as her government’s refusal to use the term “Rohingya” to describe the community, has been criticised by disappointed human rights activists internationally.
Of course, one may sympathise with her over the political situation she faces. Suu Kyi is caught between a rock and a hard place. Any bald call for an end to the violence to the Rohingya community would be interpreted as support for their fight to be recognised as Myanmar citizens. And that would be tantamount to political suicide considering her largely Buddhist support.
“The new government has inherited a situation where laws and policies are in place that are designed to deny fundamental rights to minorities, and where impunity for serious violations against such communities has encouraged further violence against them,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a report on the Rohingya community.
Suu Kyi has said that the country needed “space” to deal with the Rohingya issue and cautioned against the use of “emotive terms” that she said were making the situation more difficult.
However, her personal feelings on the matter may be somewhat skewed as well, given the reported response she had to being interviewed by Muslim BBC Today presenter Mishal Husain after losing her temper when Husain asked her to condemn anti-Islamic sentiment. “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim,” she was heard saying under her breath.
It may not be an outright indicator of her feelings about Muslims, as Suu Kyi is under incredible pressure from all quarters to navigate the political minefield that she has inherited, and whatever she says will have the potential to affect Myanmar in very real and possibly bloody ways.
So perhaps Malaysians should not be too judgemental of Suu Kyi when she comes for her visit next month. She has done much for the progress of human rights and democracy. All the world and the Rohingya community can hope of her is that she makes a stand soon. Hopefully, she will take advantage of Tenaganita’s offer to connect her to the Malaysian Rohingya community. The gesture would make for a good peace offering.