Citizens International

Our Golden Lady No More



Last October 2016, 9 Myanmar policemen were killed in the town of Rakhine. The Myanmar Government accused the rebel group i.e. Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) as the main culprit.

The incident soon set up waves of organised state violence against the Rohingya’s in the Rakhine. It lasted three weeks in which U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, reported serious violations, including torture, summary executions, arbitrary arrests and destruction of mosques and homes.

AP France reported that US State Department together with activist and aid groups joined hands in raising alarm about new reports of rape and murder. Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch showed that at least three villages in the western state of Rakhine were burned.

For seasoned analysts – the discriminations and violence against Rohingyas are nothing new. The latest occurrence only amplifies the injustice done systematically for decades . It is worth noting that, when the military took power in 1962, it cracked down hard on the Rohingyas, primarily. Similar fate then followed other ethnic separatists and non-political people. The junta also denied the Rohingya’s the Burmese citizenship.

During Myanmar’s November 2015 Election, there was a glimpse of hope. Central to this is the involvement of Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) as the most well-known Myanmar political reformist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. In part, due to her demeanour as a human rights protagonist, there is anticipation that she will reverse decades of discrimination and ethnic prosecution on Muslim minorities, once elected.

However, the fate of Rohingyas – Post 2015 November Election did not see any changes – literally. What is even more frustrating is Aung San Suu Kyi evasive and often contradictory behaviour on the issue. There are precedents to this , which are worth recapping.

When pushed on the Rohingya dilemma, in a 2013 BBC interview,- ASSK resort in blaming “both sides,” She remarked, “Though Muslims have been targeted, Buddhists too have also been subjected to violence.” She insisted on this reality even when the BBC presenter, Mishal Hussain highlighted the disproportionate number of Muslims killed and affected.

What is even more compelling is – after getting grilled by the BBC presenter, Suu Kyi furiously muttered off-air: ‘No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.’ A statement which has made her somewhat infamous for – since last three years.

In early 2015 – when the issue of Buddhist prosecution and mass arrival of Rohingyas refugees on boats to Malaysia and Indonesia made headlines across the world – ASSK was seen to have largely avoided making any critical remarks on this issue.

The latest was in May 2016. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs under her purview, issued directives to all foreign missions to “stop” using the term Rohingya.

If we would look closely, there are two interrelated risks for ASSK in her current approach towards Rohingya.

Firstly is to her image as Nobel Peace Prize Winner. It is worth noting that – criticism on her policies on Rohingyas has begun to develop its own momentum. And these are coming from prominent actors.

The US State Department rejected flatly ASSK directives to disuse the term Rohingya. Apparently, the term will continue to be used.

On 15 September 2016, the Dalai Lama condemned attacks against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, describing them as acts of “some mischievous individuals who do not represent Buddhism,”. He equally criticised Aung San Suu Kyi for not speaking up against the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.

For the record, this is the third time Dalai Lama has been speaking against ASSK muted response on the issue. The second was in May 2015 whilst the first time he broached the issue was in 2012.

Pope Francis voiced out his concern on the Rohingya’s last year – August 2015. Will this transform into criticism? Something to keep track of, in coming years.

The bottom line is – all these precedents suggest ASSK as a Nobel Peace Prize winner – has lost her credibility to assist the Rohingya’s in seeking peaceful co-existence. She is not the golden lady that we know in 1991. Her 25 years of involvement in Myanmar sectarian and racially overdrive politics has transformed her into an astute politician instead.

In this context, being a Bamar elite, ASSK understands the finer socio-religious sentiment of Bamar Buddhist has on the Rohingya’s Muslims. She has maneuvered around this notion tactfully and to date successfully – in keeping her young Government stable.

Some may insist that her approach is temporal, given Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. However, the issue with populist politics/policies is – it need to be constantly fed with. ASSK Buddhist power base is likely to destabilize – if she reverses her position on the Rohingya’s.

There is an online petition currently calling to withdraw the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991. Thousands of people, many of whom are from the Muslim-majority Indonesia, have joined the call for the revocation of the peace prize awarded to ASSK.

Revoking her Nobel Prize apart, there may be another proactive action that can be taken.

The time has also come for ASEAN to up the ante in increasing the pressure on ASSK and Myanmar Government. This must be done to reverse its discriminative policies on the ethnic Rohingyas.

It is worth noting that such an approach may have been proven workable.

In May 2015, after receiving harsh criticisms from the international community, pertinently from ASEAN members, Myanmar information minister Ye Htut told foreign ambassadors that Burma would cooperate with regional and international counterparts “to tackle the ongoing boat people crisis, which is a consequence of human trafficking of people from Rakhine state and Bangladesh to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.”

ASEAN has, in the past, successfully assisted Myanmar in opening its door to the world and push the country towards various slow but moving reforms. A similar approach can be applied, but with a need for a more robust diplomacy.

The Rohingyas issue is not unlike any domestic problems affecting the region. This involves raw and critical humanitarian issues of the Rohingyas that will perpetually plague ASEAN if other members choose the slow and mitigated path in dealing with Yangon and ASSK.

Ferooze Ali is a Researcher for Citizens International, Penang Malaysia