Monday 19 February 2018

Diary: Has Aung San Suu Kyi waited too long to speak out on her nation’s woes?

EXODUS: Rohingya Muslims walk to the shore after arriving on a boat from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP
EXODUS: Rohingya Muslims walk to the shore after arriving on a boat from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

Fergal Keane

In the rainy season the illusion never changes. It is the same sea every time. The same beguiling confluences of water and gold, sunlight and vivid green, wooden stilt bridges, small figures far below in the dusk as the plane banks over the Mandalay hills. There is no more beautiful approach to the land anywhere on earth, a descent that is like an ascent: your body is coming to the earth but the heart soars in the presence of such beauty. The rice paddies have been flooded since the first rains came in May giving the impression of a flooded civilisation above which the golden pagodas seem suspended in air.

It is impossible to conceive of this as a place in which hatred might blossom. The stillness of a pre-industrial landscape, the body reduced to listlessness by the pressing heat, the smiles on every passing face, those lines of saffron-robed monks clutching their alms bowls. All that and generations of conditioning of a western mind which sees the word Buddhism and instantly thinks of the Dalai Lama, celebrities like Richard Gere, meditation, thousands of self-help books, and appeals for compassion and tolerance.

It is the last part, or rather their absence, that is causing the problem in Myanmar now. Numerous friends have asked me in tones of disbelief if Buddhists could really be capable of the crimes being attributed to them now, a nastiness that has driven over 400,000 people to flee from their homes into makeshift camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, perpetrate rape and murder, and sow landmines on paths used by refugees? I have news for you, my friends. They are capable. More than capable. Like the rest of us of all faiths and none, they can, in fact, be ferociously enthusiastic about slaughtering their ethnic, religious or political enemies.

That I should have to explain this says much for the power of stereotype and broader ignorance of the history of South East Asia.

Being a devoutly Buddhist country does not give immunity to the vice of hatred. Anybody remember Cambodia and the devoutly Buddhist society that gave us the genocidal Khmer Rouge? Or Sri Lanka and its savage war with the Tamils? Or the vicious crackdowns in Thailand, where tolerance is so valued that the mere hint of a comment that might be seen to disrespect the monarch can land you in jail?

There are numerous other examples of viciousness in the Buddhist realms. But the issue is not a belief system. The fault does not lie with Buddhism as such, no more than the fault lay exclusively with religion in our own blood quarrels. Or with religion in the current wars in Syria or Iraq.

It is the misuse of religion that brings untold grief. And yes, we need to acknowledge that faith can be the most powerful of all flags. Men can unleash their most vile instincts under the pretence of doing holy work. But scrape away the flaking paint and there is a different fresco on the ancient walls, a hatred borne of fear of the 'other' and usually an 'other' whose existence is resented for the most basic, non-sectarian reasons. Do the Rakhine Buddhists hate the Rohingya because they face Mecca to pray and revere a different holy book? Of course they don't. They fear them because they themselves are among the poorest of the country's poor and they have been told by the military for generations that the Rohingya want to take what they have. They have been told that unless they fight back they will be swamped and destroyed, that their women will be seduced and used as vehicles to breed Muslim babies and dilute the race. To students of genocide or ethnic cleansing, this language will be familiar. It is what usually comes in the preparatory stages.

These hateful falsities have been encouraged by a self-serving elite composed of the military and some senior Buddhist clergy. They have been enabled by a pro-democracy movement that has decided to remain silent, not least because of fear of alienating a larger population that, by and large, has accepted the agenda of untruth. Blame the sealing of Myanmar from the world over decades on the ability of the elite to preserve the ugly mythologies of race and faith.

The Buddhist monks of Ma Ba Tha have led the way in Muslim baiting. This popular movement was banned last July by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi. But the ban has not been enforced, perhaps because of a lack of enthusiasm among the security forces. I went to meet the monks in Mandalay for an encounter they filmed and which involved them scolding me for the BBC's use of the term 'Rohingya' when "no such race existed." There were eight monks facing me in a semi-circle and all repeated the same ethno-sectarian polemic.

These men have, in the past, derided Aung San Suu Kyi. But her stance on the Rohingya issue pleases them. She has described the problems in Rakhine state as 'terrorism' and written-off reports of ethnic cleansing as an "iceberg of misinformation." One Monk told me "she is on the right side in this Bengali (the pejorative term for Rohingya) issue."

Aung San Suu Kyi does not control the military. The compromise that allowed for democratic elections involved ceding control over the army, borders and domestic security to the military. But this does not absolve a Nobel Laureate from the responsibility to call for tolerance and an end to abuses. Knowing the military as well as she does, Aung San Suu Kyi knows precisely what they are capable of in Rakhine state. The 'iceberg of misinformation' line is disingenuous, to put it mildly. Some diplomats have suggested she will not speak out where she believes private pressure is best. Private pressure has achieved nothing.

The blame for ethnic cleansing lies with the military and its chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. But it is Aung San Suu Kyi's government that has cooperated in the banning of independent aid workers and journalists, and refused to utter a single public word urging restraint on the military. True, in a country where the majority regards the Rohingya as interlopers, she risks political isolation by speaking out.

But five years ago over 100,000 Rohingya were driven out and she said nothing. She was not in government then, not tied to the military.

There have been many times since then when she could have spoken but chose to stay silent. Leadership involves unpleasant compromises. But it also means speaking out when your country is being consumed by catastrophe. Now it is the military hawks and Buddhist hardliners who are in the ascendant. Perhaps the time when Aung Suu Kyi might have made a difference, has passed.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

Sunday Independent

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