When ‘genocide’ unfolds in the backyard of a Nobel laureate
By Dr Azeem Ibrahim
October 29, 2016
Over the years, some Nobel Peace Prize awards have raised eyebrows. Most famously, the one awarded to Barack Obama in 2009 for nothing more than suggesting that we all get along and try to fix the Middle East. Many thought at the time that this award was premature, and the fact that Obama has left the Middle East an even more chaotic and violent mess than he found it surely vindicates that thought.
But when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, nobody would have expected that we would come to question that decision. Here was an outstanding campaigner for democracy and freedom for her people in Myanmar, who chose to suffer from persecution from the military junta who ruled her country at home than to flee abroad and hide behind Western diplomatic protection.
Yet Ms Suu Kyi has become the first person to hold the dubious distinction of having a group of other Nobel Peace Prize laureates accuse her of presiding over a genocide. Desmond Tutu from South Africa, Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland, Jody Williams from the USA, Tawakkol Karman from Yeman, Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel from Argentina and Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan have all expressed immense concern over the fate of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, as well as Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and many other distinguished leading global moral voices. There is even a petition on change.org signed by 81,000+ individuals urging the Nobel Committee to withdraw her prize.
What is maddening about the situation is that Ms Suu Kyi has already been in power for over one year after becoming leader of Myanmar in their first reasonably democratic elections in half a century, she has overwhelming popular support, and could carry just about any policy into effect she would desire, yet the situation of the Rohingya in this past year has gotten worse, not better.
Marginalised for decades, refused citizenship in the country of their birth by law in contravention of the UN Charter since 1982 and the target of regular communal violence, as well as systematic state violence, over half of the 1.5-2 million Rohingya have been displaced from the country of their birth in the past four decades, while more than 140,000 languish in internal displaced persons’ camps, where they are denied healthcare and education, and from where the authorities discourage them from leaving “for their own protection.”
These conditions have triggered successive waves of emigration which have seriously strained the resources of neighbouring countries and have attracted their ire toward Myanmar. This movement of refugees culminated last year when in the spring, the regional migration crisis shortly overshadowed even the European migration crisis in the news cycle. Yet after the election of Ms Suu Kyi last November, many in the Rohingya community in Myanmar and abroad were hopeful. They trusted in the woman they affectionately call “mother” and this spring has not seen similar waves of emigration as the previous years.
But their faith seems to have been misplaced. At every opportunity afforded to her so far, Ms Suu Kyi has failed to stand up for the Rohingya and tackle those in her country who would ethnically cleanse these people. Indeed, she has chosen to perpetuate the myth that the Rohingya are a people who do not belong in Myanmar, has refused to even acknowledge their existence as an indigenous ethnic group, instead referring to them as “Bengalis” just as the most extreme nationalists do and is conspicuously failing intervene as parts of the police force and military in the local state of Rakhine have killed over 30 and displaced more than 15,000 in a fresh wave of violence in the past month.
For the past year, we have given Ms Suu Kyi the benefit of doubt, just like we gave her the benefit of the doubt before her election. We liked to hope that she knew what she was doing and that she was slowly but surely going to change the perception of the Rohingya in Myanmar so that in the longer term they could be reintegrated into mainstream society, eventually as equal members. But the evidence belies that hope. And the recent surge in state violence toward the group shows that we no longer have the luxury to wait and hope for the best. We must demand that our leaders take charge of the situation and intervene on behalf of the Rohingya, where Ms Suu Kyi will not.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim