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Racism and the Burman privilege: Why Suu Kyi’s government deserves no praise

Burma's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Pic: AP.

By Matthew Abbey
January 17, 2017

WHEN a video was uploaded to Facebook in early January showing unarmed men being beaten by police officers in Burma, the authorities were quick to arrest the four culprits after realising the world was watching.

The unarmed victims were a part of the Rohingya Muslim minority group, who for decades have faced government persecution.

Because of the government’s failure to address the plight of ethnic minorities, Burma’s de facto leader Aung Sung Suu Kyi has been routinely criticised by the international community. Although she is the country’s symbol of democracy, time and time again she fails to recognise the privilege of her ethnic Burman identity.

The villagers in the Rathedaung Township, where the beating took place, are no strangers to violence. What is depicted in the video is not unusual, but rather the treatment the Rohingya have come to expect. As the video shows, two officers, Pyae Phyo Thwin and Tay Zar Lin, whip and kick two unarmed men who sit passively on the floor among dozens of Rohingya villagers. Another officer, Zaw Myo Htike films the video as he passively smokes a cigarette, while Major Ye Htun Naing oversees the ordeal.

After the four men were detained by the Home Affairs Ministry and the Burman police force, Suu Kyi said in a statement that the police officers “will be punished”. But if it goes ahead, it will only be because Suu Kyi has bowed to international pressure.

U Zaw Htay, a government spokesperson, assured reporters in Naypyidaw that the government stresses the need to act within the limits of the law, but similar forms of abuse are widespread. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regularly denounce the government for its treatment of the Rohingya, but the government deflects all criticism.

Even after Nobel Peace Prize laureates wrote an open letter labelling the treatment of the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing, the government gave scarce attention. The Rohingya are simply not a priority, with many not even recognised as citizens.

The international community rightly criticises Suu Kyi for failing to show support for the Rohingya, but few ask the question as to why she remains passive, especially as she is no stranger to political persecution. But the persecution levied towards Suu Kyi in prior decades was based on her activism, not her ethnic identity.

Suu Kyi has failed ethnic minorities because she fails to recognise her own ethnic Burman privilege. The Burman are the dominant ethnic group in Burma who make up two-thirds of the population. ‘Burmanness’, as a result, is a privilege bestowed upon the majority of the population. Because the majority of the population are benefitting, the plight of unprivileged ethnic minorities is ignored.

Burma is often viewed through an ethnic lens, but Suu Kyi fails to address the issue. A brief glance at past speeches in her book ‘Freedom from Fear’ (1991) is illuminating.

She once claimed; 

“We cannot have the attitude of ‘‘I’m Kachin,’’ ‘‘I’m Burman,’’ ‘‘I’m Shan.’’ We must have the attitude that we are all comrades in the struggle for democratic rights… Only then will we succeed. If we divide ourselves ethnically, we shall not achieve democracy for a long time.”

It’s a noble idea, but for the Rohingya who are systemically discriminated against based on ethnicity, ethnicity is important.

Remaining blind to privilege has allowed for institutional dominance to continue throughout Burma’s transition to democracy. As Burman civil society groups emerge, military operations in non-Burman states are on the rise. The space for the Burman is opening while the room for ethnic minorities is shrinking.

Racism cannot end without recognition of privilege.

As long as the Burman continue to turn a blind eye, ethnic minorities will continue to suffer. Burman privilege exists in this Southeast Asian nation in the same way that white privilege exists in the United States.

If Suu Kyi continues to ignore ethnicity, the Burman will maintain a superior status in the country under a façade of democratisation. In order for her to create a true democracy, racism against ethnic minorities must end. However, considering how Suu Kyi refuses to refer to the Rohingya by name, it may be worth waiting for a new government to form ethnic unity. 

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