It is not often that a Nobel Peace Prize laureate faces severe criticism over his or her human rights records and sees the launch of a petition to have the Prize revoked. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto ruler of Myanmar (formerly Burma), faces that reality today.
From all credible reports regarding the situation facing the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine Province of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has ignored their plight. Her failure to intervene has further aggravated the situation. It is today called “ethnic cleansing” by human rights bodies and much of the blame is being attributed to this Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a hero of democracy in Burma. Peoplein many countries respect and admire her.She is known as a figure of patience who eventually took back power peacefully from the military dictatorship.But her position and deafening silence on the persecution of the minority Rohingya Muslims haveleft manyaround the world disappointed and angry.
Over the past three years, more than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have been living in grave conditions in refugee camps in Myanmar and in many other countries. Thousands are now fleeing over the border and by boat to Bangladesh. They are bringing with them horrible stories of atrocities by the Burmese army and other groups associated with thegovernment.There have been reports of rape, torture and murder, including of women and children, and villages which were burnt to the ground.
It has been reported that in the last 18 months, Buddhist mobs have terrorized Muslims throughout Burma. More than 200 have been killed and mosques, homes and businesses have been burned, while the authorities turned a blind eye. Today Rohingya are trapped in dirty refugee camps, living in bad tents, with not much food and not enough medicine. The police prevent them from coming and going as free people. Some refugees are killed under mysterious circumstances or simply disappear forever. Sometimes the bodies are dumped in unmarked graves. It is like a big outdoor jail. Many Rohingya people have tried to escape to other countries. Seventymen, women and children drowned in an overloaded boat that should never have gone to sea.
Who are the Rohingya? As one Washington Post article explains:“…it depends on whom you ask— and that itself may be at the core of the conflict. To most of the world (and the minority themselves), the Rohingya are a Bengali-speaking and mostly-Muslim minority in Burma….But the Burmese government says the Rohingya do not exist. In fact, they object to the very use of the word “Rohingya” at all, instead arguing that they are Bengali and entered what is now Burma during the time of the British Empire or later as illegal immigrants after Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971.
The article goes on: “More than 1 million Rohingya are estimated to live in the country, mostly in the northern part of Rakhine state along the border with Bangladesh and India, and almost as many live outside of it. Though the word Rohingya only came to widespread use in the 1990s, there are records of similar words being used to describe people in what is now Rakhine state as far back as the 18th century. Some Rohingya people say they are descended from an 8th-century shipwreck that links them to Arabs or Persians farther west.”
This minority is not among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country; despite their considerable numbers and local roots in Burma, they are not considered citizens and are denied access to government services. As further reported:“The Rohingya long faced discrimination— in 2009, a U.N. spokes woman described them as “probably the most friendless people in the world” — but there has been a marked deterioration in their situation since the Burmese military began to relinquish power in 2011.
A growing Buddhist nationalism in Burma, where 90 percent of the population identifies with Buddhism, has led to a number of laws on religion, including restrictions on inter-faith marriage. There has also been major ethnic violence in Rakhine; most notably in 2012, when sectarian riots after the rape of a woman in the state led to large-scale displacement of Muslims, with many moving into squalid camps for internally displaced people.”
The U.N. refugee agency estimates that a total of 123,000 refugees have fled western Burmasince August 25. Tensions have risen since Rohingya fighters seeking better conditions attacked several police and military outposts. Those attacks prompted an extreme and severe response from the army which in turn prompted a greater exodus of the Rohingya people to Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyiwas once considered a global human rights icon; a pro-democracy campaigner in the time of military rule, she was kept under house arrest for 15 years and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Critics have assailed her response to the Rohingya crisis; Suu Kyi was virtually silent on reports of state violence against Muslims for years. Some supporters suggest she has done what she did to maintain Burma’s fragile democracy, though others contend she is simply reverting to an authoritarian streak she has long held privately.
Suu Kyi has played down the international outrage over the most recent violence in Rakhine, suggesting that “terrorists” were spreading misinformation. It may be true that misinformation on social media has influenced both pro- andanti-Rohingy asentiment. However, her own government has restricted access to Rakhine for foreign journalists and refused to allowed U.N. experts accessto the state to investigate alleged abuses.
Suu Kyi is known to have an anti-Muslim bias. In 2013, she made a controversial statement that most likely echoes her inherent prejudices. After an interview with a BBC Today anchor, Mishal Husain,in response to aquestion on the hardships experienced by Muslims in Myanmar, she commented:“No one told me that I was to be interviewed by a Muslim.”
As world news begin to focus on the plight of the Rohingya,many world leaders are speaking up against their persecution. Pope Francis, speaking in St. Peter’s Square recently, said: “Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority. I would like to express my full closeness to them – and let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights.”
Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa,in a letter to Suu Kyi, revealed his regard for her as a sister and how he used to keep a photo of her on his desk to remind him of the sacrifice she made for her own people. He wrote: “Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya, but what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted — and recently accelerated.”
“My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.”