Rohingya And Suu Kyi's Reticence

December 4, 2017

 

AS world capitals go, Naypyidaw is one of the weirdest. Six-lane highways with scarcely a car on them could serve as runways. The roads connect concealed ministries and vast convention centres. A white heat glares over the emptiness. There is no hub, gathering place or public square — and that is the point.

 

Military leaders in Myanmar wanted a capital secure in its remoteness, and they unveiled this city in 2005. Yangon, the bustling former capital, was treacherous; over the decades of suffocating rule by generals, protests would erupt.

 

So, it is in this undemocratic fortress, of all places, that Aung San Suu Kyi, long the world’s champion of democracy, spends her days, contemplating a spectacular fall from grace: the dishonoured icon in her ghostly labyrinth.

 

Seldom has a reputation collapsed so fast. Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated Burmese independence hero, Aung San, endured 15 years of house arrest in confronting military rule. She won the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Serene in her bravery and defiance, she came to occupy a particular place in the world’s imagination and, in 2015, swept to victory in elections that appeared to close the decades-long military chapter in Myanmar history.

 

But, her muted evasiveness before the flight across the Bangladeshi border of some 620,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Myanmar, has prompted international outrage. Her halo has evaporated.

 

After such investment in her goodness, the world is livid at being duped. The city of Oxford stripped her of an honour. It’s open season against “The Lady”, as she is known.

 

Why can she not see the “widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces”, to which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alluded during a brief visit this month, actions the State Department defined last week as “ethnic cleansing”?

 

Certainly, Suu Kyi has appeared unmoved. She has avoided condemning the military for what the United Nations has called a “human rights nightmare”.

 

She shuns the word “Rohingya”, a term reviled by many in Myanmar’s Buddhist majority as an invented identity. “Harmony” is a favourite expression of hers, as is “rule of law”. Both lie at a fantastic distance from the reality in Myanmar.

 

It is a fragmented country still confronting multiple ethnic insurgencies and “always held together by force”, as Derek Mitchell, a former United States ambassador, told me. Since independence from British imperial rule in 1948, the army, known as the Tatmadaw, has ruled most of the time, with ruinous consequences.

 

The problem is she’s a novice in her current role. The hard grind of politics is foreign to her. Empathy is not her thing. Take her to a refugee camp; she won’t throw her arms around the children.

 

She sees herself as incarnating the inner spirit of her country, a straight-backed Buddhist woman with a mission to complete what her father, whom she lost when she was 2, set out to do — unify the nation. Yet, the road to that end remains vague.

 

Even Myanmar’s ultimate identity — a Buddhist state dominated by her own ethnic Bamar majority or a genuinely federalist, multireligious union — remains unclear. Her voice is absent.

 

Suu Kyi’s reticence has favoured obfuscation. It has left the field open for a ferocious Facebook war over recent events. The Rohingya and Buddhists inhabit separate realities. There are no agreed facts, even basic ones. This is the contemporary post-truth condition.

 

As the Annan report notes, “narratives are often exclusive and irreconcilable”.

 

In Rakhine State, where all hell broke loose last August, the poverty is etched in drawn faces with staring eyes. The violence that ripped through the northern part of the state was a disaster foretold.

 

There was an earlier eruption, in 2012, when inter-communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims left close to 200 people dead and about 120,000 people marooned in camps. There they have rotted for five years.

 

Government promises have yielded nothing. The camps are closed off. Former Rohingya districts in town have been emptied, a shocking exercise in ghettoisation.

 

I spoke by phone with Saed Mohamed, a 31-year-old teacher confined since 2012 in a camp.

 

“The government has cheated us so many times,” he said.

 

“I have lost my trust in Aung San Suu Kyi. She is still lying. She never talks about our
Rohingya suffering. She talks of peace and community, but her government has done nothing for reconciliation.”

 

Within Myanmar, the word, “Rohingya”, resembles a fuse to a bomb. It sets people off. The general view is that there are no Rohingya, only “Bengalis”.

 

It does not matter when exactly Rohingya was coined — dispute rages on this question — or when Rakhine Muslims embraced it in their overwhelming majority. Nothing is more certain to forge ethno-national identity than oppression.

 

By making Rakhine Muslims stateless — by granting them identity cards of various hues that at various times seemed to confer citizenship or its promise only to withdraw them — and by subjecting them to intermittent violence, the military of Myanmar and its Rakhine Buddhist militia sidekicks have done more than anyone to forge a distinct Rohingya identity.

 

It’s less clear what should be done now. More than half a million terrorised people find themselves homeless. Bangladesh and Myanmar announced an agreement this past week to begin returning displaced people within two months, but details were murky. Repatriation is urgent, but contentious, and will be meaningless unless Myanmar lays out an unambiguous and consistent path to citizenship, or at least legal residency, for the Rohingya, who today constitute some 10 per cent of all the world’s stateless people.

 

Denying citizenship to people resident in Myanmar for a long time is unworthy of the democracy Suu Kyi wants to forge as her last legacy.

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