In the face of scathing criticism from international human rights groups, supporters of the sainted Aung San Suu Kyi are left with only one way to spin her inaction and silence on the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar: as cold political calculation on her part.
With national elections coming up later this year, it is arguably expedient to pander to those segments of Myanmar’s largely Buddhist population who would deny political rights to the 750,000 Muslim Rohingyas who inhabit the Rakhine state on the border with Bangladesh. Their numbers are small, and their citizenship status is contested. In crude electoral terms, there is nothing to be gained from espousing their cause and, possibly, much to lose. Yet such crowd-pleasing, whether craven or shrewd, hardly befits the internationally lauded recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
It could even be said that this “political calculus” rationale is flawed. The last time Myanmar held elections, in 1990, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 59% of the vote and 81% of the seats in parliament. In by-elections held in 2012 after her release from house arrest, her party won 43 of 45 seats. So it would appear that she has ample political capital to spend on issues she deems worthy.
And it is hard to think of a worthier cause than the robust repudiation of the ethnic cleansing of more than half the Rohingya minority population from the state of Rakhine in the past few decades, with those remaining suffering brutal pogroms. Thousands have been killed and scores of villages razed. Through all of this, Suu Kyi has remained startlingly mute.
The Rohingya were effectively denied citizenship by a 1982 law that refused to recognize them as one of the 135 “national races” of the country. In the years since, they have been banned from traveling or getting married without a permit, and are limited by law to no more than two children.
In the face of these rights violations, Suu Kyi’s silence or mealy-mouthed equivocation has tarnished her image as an icon of democracy. To suggest, as she does, that atrocities are committed on both sides—by Rohingya and the majority Arakanese in Rakhine state—is a distortion of the truth.
Similarly, to refuse to condemn the atrocities against the Rohingyas on the grounds that condemnation is counter-productive to results, as she does, is disingenuous. Coming from someone whose primary political weapon during her two-decade battle with the junta ruling Myanmar has been her moral authority, it is also grotesquely distasteful.
The simple fact is that as she remains silent, the Rohingya continue to be killed and raped and driven out of their homes. And the climate of hatred and vitriol that has been whipped up against them takes succor from her failure to use her global platform on their behalf.
In one of her most celebrated speeches, Suu Kyi famously said: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” She might well have added: Fear of never gaining power corrupts those who would hold their tongues in the face of savagery. If Aung Suu Kyi is remaining silent on the plight of the Rohingyas because she’s afraid that speaking out would cost her an election, she doesn’t deserve to come to power. And as her silence leads to the deaths of more and more innocent people, she doesn’t deserve our respect either.
Zafar Sobhan is the Editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper published from Bangladesh.