The continuing silence of Aung San Sui Kyi on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma continues to confound and dismay all those who welcomed her return to the international scene as the moral voice of Burma.
Aung San Sui Kyi has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has received honorary degrees and awards, has met with royalty and presidents including President Obama and has been credited with bringing Myanmar or Burma back into the world of nations. So it makes her refusal to condemn the genocide even more puzzling and indeed, deplorable.
The Rohingya are a persecuted religious and linguistic minority who have lived for generations on the western coast of Burma. The Burmese government, still dominated by the military in spite of so-called democratic reforms, insists they are relatively recent illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, as if this is justification for the systematic and continuing state sponsored violence against these people.
Six months of sectarian violence have driven more than 125,000 people from their homes. Forcibly segregated and rejected as citizens by both Bangladesh and Burma, they continue to be victimized in the internally displaced person (IDP) camps where they have sought shelter.
Conditions in the camps are appalling as local Buddhists are preventing aid agencies from gaining access to Rohingya camps. Security forces expected to provide protection for displaced Muslims have instead acted as their jailers, preventing access to markets, livelihoods and humanitarian assistance, which is desperately needed. What is increasingly obvious is that the Burmese government is conducting an organized campaign to forcibly relocate or remove the state’s Muslims.
The Burmese government under President Thein Sein has taken no serious steps to hold accountable those responsible or to prevent future outbreaks of violence. Failing to intervene and participating directly in the violence makes the government complicit in ethnic cleansing under international law.
Since the 1990s UN special rapporteurs have identified countless widespread and systematic abuses against the Rohingya Muslims resulting from state policy. The government’s formal response to the recent violence has been to form an investigative commission, which has as yet failed to produce a report. Prompted by international outrage, President Thein Sein wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon condemning the “criminal acts” and senseless violence”, a message repeated just prior to President Obama’s visit to Burma.
Since then, the violence has only increased with anti-Muslim violence spreading to central Burma with thousands more people being killed, wounded and displaced. The organization Genocide Watch updated the “Genocide Emergency” for Burmese Muslims on April 4 2013, calling them one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in the world. State-supported violence against Muslims not only continues a long pattern of discrimination, but is also a reminder that genocidal violence against Muslims, Shin, Karen, and other minorities remains rampant in Myanmar.
So Aung San Suu Kyi’s reticence and refusal to condemn attacks on the Rohingya in Myanmar has dimmed the Nobel laureate’s reputation among global rights campaigners who feel she should use her moral authority to step up and condemn the Burmese government. But observers also note she is widely expected to win the general elections in 2015 that could install her as Myanmar’s next president and support for Burma’s Muslims could hurt her with the core anti-Islamic Buddhist constituency at the elections.
If this is true, and she is putting her personal ambitions before humanitarian and compassionate considerations, then she has no moral right to keep the Nobel Peace Prize. And it is hard to see that the people of Burma will maintain respect and admiration for a leader who has championed the rule of law yet failed to speak out against anti-Islamic prejudice and violence.
According to Chris Lewa, the Bangkok-based director of The Arakan Project, which lobbies for Rohingya rights, Suu Kyi is failing a vital test of leadership. According to international norms, her silence on the genocide in Burma is also failing a vital test of humanitarian global justice.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and Fellow a the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
This article was published by The Huffington Post on May 17, 2013. Read it here.