In the past month, the Rohingya refugee crisis has unfolded before the widening eyes of the world. More than 430,000 desperate Rohingya people from Myanmar, most of them already malnourished, traumatized and exhausted, have poured into neighbouring Bangladesh. Satellite photographs show the hundreds of burned villages they have fled in a country that has refused to give them citizenship for decades.
It’s not really a surprise that Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s beloved leader, has not condemned the military’s attacks on the Rohingya, a beleaguered, mostly Muslim population. While politicians and human-rights groups are talking up a storm of outrage and indignation, Ms. Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya dates back to at least 2012, two years after she was released from house arrest and three years before she won the national election.
In 2012, after violent clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslim communities, large groups of the Rohingya minority were confined to makeshift camps inside Rakhine state, ostensibly to keep them safe from their Buddhist neighbours – though that “safety” included overcrowding, severe restrictions on working outside the camp (which led to extreme poverty), a lack of education and limited access to medical care, which worsened when the military expelled Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) from Myanmar. Preventable illness and death in the camps flourished, with more and more Rohingya escaping by sea to seek refuge elsewhere. Why wasn’t the Lady, as she used to be called, speaking out?
Burmese people told me then that she would remain silent on the divisive issue of the Rohingya until she had more power. In 2015, she won the election. She said nothing about the Rohingya or the increasing hate speech and discrimination against other Muslim populations. In fact, that year she graced a large community event that featured a rare display of photographs of Rohingya people confined to their quasi-death camps in Rakhine state. After viewing the images, she turned to an aide and asked, “Where were these photographs taken? Who are these people?”
It’s true that under the legal constitution, Ms. Suu Kyi has no control over the military. But her great strength through years of house arrest and entrenched political struggle was an essentially moral one based on cogent humanitarian principles. She has written books and given countless speeches about the source of that strength, grounded as it is in a commitment to non-violence and respectful dialogue. Since 1988, millions of people have followed her lead and her example. Under a dictatorship that had legislated and violently enforced silence for decades, Ms. Suu Kyi’s modus operandi involved courageous speech on behalf of the powerless.
The most powerless people in Myanmar right now, and for at least the past five years, have been Muslim. About the current plight of the Rohingya, Ms. Suu Kyi has remained almost entirely silent. The only time she has used the word “Rohingya” recently was in mentioning ARSA, a small, poorly equipped insurgent army whose violent attacks on police stations on Aug. 25 sparked the military reprisal against the civilian Rohingya population.
On two recent trips to Myanmar, I listened to many conversations about hate speech, racism and religious discrimination. Burmese colleagues of various religions and ethnicities quietly expressed their concerns about Ms. Suu Kyi’s confounding silence while also respectfully giving her a pass with now-familiar, weak explanations: She is in a delicate position vis-à-vis the military; she has to be careful not to alienate “the people,” she is isolated and has bad advisers; she is still their beloved leader who believes in a multiethnic, multifaith country built on human rights.
One friend privately quipped, “Oh, Daw Suu has always stood up for human rights. Not so much for human beings.” When the brilliant Muslim lawyer Ko Ni, her close adviser and the architect of her ascension to political power, was assassinated early this year, Ms. Suu Kyi did not attend his funeral. For many, this public gesture of disrespect or fear or overwhelming grief – what did her absence mean? – was incomprehensible.
Will Ms. Suu Kyi find a way to address the unfolding crisis of the Rohingya? At least now it is abundantly, painfully clear who they are and whence they have fled.