Three weeks on from the outbreak of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the United Nations Security Council yesterday took the unusual step of condemning outright an ongoing “clearance operation” which has killed an estimated 1000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
The Rohingya people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, have long been subject to discrimination and victimisation:described by the UN as “the world’s most persecuted minority”, they are considered stateless, denied citizenship and trapped in poverty-stricken Rakhine state without access to basic rights and services. While this treatment dates back decades, this latest bout of violence is seen as a major escalation and erupted when the clearance operation was launched by security forces in response to militant action against the government. Since then, reports from the region have detailed the burning of homes, the rape of women and the torture and burning alive of Rohingya Muslims who are currently fleeing in great numbers, primarily to neighbouring Bangladesh. Others have referred to landmines placed along borders and the blocking of aid. As the number displaced approached 400,000 yesterday, the UN’s Secretary General Antonio Gutteres described the events as a “catastrophic” humanitarian situation.
As a result, the world’s attention over these past weeks has been firmly on Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi – not only in her capacity as the government’s head, and foreign minister, but also as a widely respected human rights activist. One of the world’s most famous political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi led her party, the National League for Democracy, to a landslide election win in 2015, exactly five years after being released from house arrest following her role in the pro-democracy 1988 Uprisings that swept the country then known as Burma. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while still under house arrest for work to peacefully bring about democratic reform in the then military-ruled Burma: at the time, she was called “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless” by the committee’s chairman.
Twenty-six years on, and little evidence of this accolade exists in Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the escalating violence in Rakhine state. Since the violence broke out, Myanmar’s government have claimed that the operation is targeting only militants and that the majority of those killed have been terrorists – although Aung San Suu Kyi herself has remained largely silent. Aside from a statement issued on her Facebook page reasserting the government’s position, and comments given to Asian News International about the need for the government to “take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens”, Aung San Suu Kyi has not been forthcoming with words nor action in support of the fleeing Rohingyas. Her last public comments were made a week ago, although she yesterday cancelled her attendance at this month’s UN General Assembly and said she will give a “state of the union address” on Tuesday next week.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction on what the UN’s high commissioner for human rights this week called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” has led to international condemnation. Last week her fellow Nobel Laureates Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu condemned her silence and urged her to act, and on Monday they were joined by the Dalai Lama who stated that she should “remember Buddha” who, he said, would “definitely help those poor Muslims”.
At the time of writing a petition demanding Aung San Suu Kyi be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize has surpassed 400,000 signatures. And she finds herself with few political allies too: although China had previously appeared to endorse Myanmar’s position, they were among UN Security Council members to agree to yesterday’s statement by consensus. Even the Trump administration has called forthe protection of civilians and the Prime Minister of neighbouring Bangladesh – where an estimated 300,000 Rohingyas have fled – has committed to providing temporary shelter and aid, stating “we will not tolerate injustice”.
As a fourth week of bloodshed draws in, it remains unclear where Aung San Suu Kyi can go from here. Her defenders point out the complex situation she finds herself in, given that Myanmar’s largely anti-Rohingya military themselves hold great power in the country’s governance; Aung San Suu Kyi must tread very carefully. Others have suggested her silence is a politically calculated decision, taken in the knowledge that Rohingyas are widely considered second-class illegal immigrants and that any defence of them might lose her public support.
Arguably, though, Aung San Suu Kyi may remain one of the only authorities in the region with public respect widespread enough to challenge anti-Rohingya prejudice. But for many the issue is simple, and best captured in the words of fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu: “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”.