Wednesday 20 September 2017

Suu Kyi's stirring Nobel speech seems less credible five years on

Indian Muslims in Kolkata hold placards to protest the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Photo: Getty Images
Indian Muslims in Kolkata hold placards to protest the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Photo: Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

On a sunny June day in 2012, a slightly built woman with flowers in her hair took the podium in Oslo's city hall to deliver a speech that left the assembled crowd spellbound. Among the many memorable lines in her address that day was the following: "Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages."

The woman speaking was Aung San Suu Kyi. The occasion was her receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991 while under house arrest as Myanmar's most famous dissident. The Nobel citation praised her "non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights", which the prize committee considered "one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades".

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: AP
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: AP

Five years on and Ms Suu Kyi's words that day seem deeply ironic as she equivocates on the most recent wave of violence against Myanmar's long-persecuted Rohingya population. The Rohingya, who number around 1.3 million, are Muslims living in a predominantly Buddhist nation. The government refuses to recognise the Rohingya as citizens and has subjected them to restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have been fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh in recent weeks as government forces in Myanmar stand accused of carrying out mass killings. Myanmarese authorities claim about 400 have been killed so far, though UN officials in the country have estimated the death toll at more than 1,000. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described the violence as being on the verge of ethnic cleansing.

Now Myanmar's de facto civilian leader, Ms Suu Kyi's response to the escalation against the Rohingya has earned her the opprobrium of fellow Nobel laureates including Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousufzai amid calls for the once internationally celebrated politician to be stripped of her peace prize.

Hopes that Ms Suu Kyi would bring an end to the repression of the Rohingya when she was elected in 2015 have come to nothing. Last year, the Myanmarese military began a military crackdown against the Rohingya, claiming they were battling "terrorism". Pressed on the subject by BBC journalist Mishal Husain, Ms Suu Kyi was heard to complain afterwards that no one told her she would be interviewed "by a Muslim".

The UN has warned that up to 300,000 Rohingya could stream into Bangladesh as they escape what the Myanmarese authorities have chillingly termed "clearance operations".

"The de facto leader needs to step in - that is what we would expect from any government, to protect everybody within their own jurisdiction," Yanghee Lee, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said this week.

But a post on Ms Suu Kyi's Facebook page blamed "terrorists" for "a huge iceberg of misinformation" about the violence, and tellingly made no mention of the Rohingya who had fled.

In her first spoken remarks about the unrest, Ms Suu Kyi told Asian News TV channel this week that her government was facing its "biggest challenge". In what amounted to an extraordinarily mealy mouthed defence of what is happening in Rakhine - the region where most of the Rohingya live - she said: "It is a little unreasonable to expect us to solve the issue in 18 months...the situation in Rakhine has been such since many decades. Our resources are not as complete and adequate as we would like them to be but still, we try our best and we want to make sure that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law."

Defenders of Ms Suu Kyi insist she has to navigate the tricky politics of a country where the military, once her nemesis and jailer, remains the real power and is allied with Buddhist nationalists, many of whom have stoked anti-Muslim sentiment.

I visited Myanmar in 2014 and interviewed many Rohingya in the miserable, water-logged camps of Rakhine where thousands of displaced Rohingya struggle to survive. "The government is keeping us here like chickens under a net," one man told me. "It is like living in a prison."

I also met radical Buddhists in Rakhine and other parts of Myanmar who supported the persecution of the Rohingya and actively encouraged it. One was the infamous Buddhist monk Wirathu, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric has helped trigger communal bloodshed across the country. Wirathu praised Ms Suu Kyi as the "mother of the nation" and told me she had visited his monastery in the northern city of Mandalay shortly after her release in 2010.

The monks are a powerful political force in Myanmar, given their influence on the population, and Ms Suu Kyi clearly feels she needs them on her side.

In her Nobel lecture, Ms Suu Kyi spoke stirringly about how her fight for democracy in Myanmar was rooted in the conviction that democracy was essential for human rights. The damning question now is whether the erstwhile heroine considers the Rohingya less deserving of those rights.

Irish Independent

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