It is deeply ironic that Aung San Suu Kyi was presented in September, 2013 with the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought which honors those who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights.
At a time when the world is looking to her for moral leadership, her silence on the plight of Burma’s Rohingya people is shocking. Based in the coastal state of Arakan (Rahkine), the 800,000 Muslim Rohingya people have been described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted minority.
When Suu Kyi is questioned about the Rohingya Muslims, she shows a surprising lack of understanding or compassion. Her standard response is that both sides — Buddhist and Muslim — are suffering equally, but this is patently not so — Burmese Buddhists are not politically stateless or being forced to live in squalid camps.
In a BBC TV interview in October 2013, she denied that her country was engaged in ethnic cleansing and suggested that the violence against Muslims was because of fear of “global Muslim power.” This is not a response one would expect from a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
Could it be that Suu Kyi herself suffers from a personal prejudice against dark-skinned Muslims and lacks political courage to use her influence to stop the violence? She knows that she will lose votes as the Rohingya people are deeply unpopular inside Burma with many regarding them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Her ambivalence on the plight of the Rohingya people continues to cause deep concern internationally.
The irony of a peace-loving Buddhist praising the military is yet another contradiction of Aung San Suu Kyi today. In her 20 years spent in jail or under house arrest she stood up against the military junta. But this week she was photographed talking to soldiers in Sandhurst, UK about the need for a “good, professional army that is respected and honoured by the people.” However, the persecution of minorities in Burma is routinely carried out by the Army under Burma’s nominally-civilian government, reminiscent of the brutal military rule of the past.
But Suu Kyi has obviously decided she needs the tacit support of the men in uniforms if she is to continue in politics although this seems to contradict the need to develop civil society. Concerns have been expressed about the amount of aid coming from the U.S. and EU to support Burma’s military instead of helping the democracy-building process.
“The EU is effectively entering into partnership with the military-backed ruling party in Burma, rather than with the people of Burma,” the human rights group Burma Campaign UK said.
An argument is made that Suu Kyi is working for “the greater common good” and that she needs to show caution if she is to achieve more progressive policies after the next election. But an example of her detachment from the democracy movement is that during her visit to London, no meetings were planned with any civil rights groups or members of the exiled Burmese community in the UK, indicating that she is undergoing a “fall from grace.”
Could it be that we are at fault by expecting too much of Suu Kyi? By looking to her to do what is morally right instead of politically expedient, we hoped she would be the shining example to make up for all the flaws in Western democracy. Disappointed in her feet of clay, we hate to see an icon revealed as just another self serving politician with her eye on the prize, which in this case is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote for the presidency.
However, Burma’s constitution forbids individuals with a spouse or children who are foreign citizens from serving as president – apparently a direct reference to Suu Kyi. She will need popular support to achieve a constitutional amendment followed by winning the Presidency. It would be unconscionable if she were to sacrifice the Royhinga minority’s interests in the process.
The means do not always justify the end and the political cost of turning a blind eye to the plight of the Rohingya people could well backfire on her and her political ambitions. In the meantime, Burma’s Muslims continue to suffer a miserable existence in sordid refugee camps — stateless and hopeless and with no foreseeable solution for the future. If not Aung San Suu Kyi, who will champion their civil rights now?
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow at ISPU, the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute, and a Lecturer at the University of Chicago.
This article was published in the Huffington Post on October 31, 2013. Read it here.