Human Rights as Political Capital: Aung San Suu Kyi’s True Face

Neo Wei Sheng
UCL Laws Student

It is a truism that we are constrained by the inadequacy of words. Phrases like “ethnic cleansing” are wholly ineffectual in capturing the extent of the atrocities which have been committed against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma; for the average person, the plight of the Rohingyas is merely another genocide in another far-off, backward country. Regrettable, yes, but easily forgotten.

And meanwhile in Burma an eight-month-old Rohingya baby is hacked to death as his mother is gang-raped by five security officers; meanwhile in Burma tens of thousands of Rohingyas are forced out of their homes and forced to live, destitute, in refugee camps; meanwhile in Burma the Rohingyas are locked in a prison that they have no choice but to call their country and their home.

The Rohingya Muslims are concentrated in the North-West region of Buddhist-majority Burma. Despite having lived in Burma for centuries, they were stripped of their citizenship in 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. Since 2012, the Burmese army has perpetuated a campaign of violence against them under the pretence of “national security”, and in February 2017, the United Nations OHCHR released a report detailing “devastating cruelty” against the Rohingya population. The systematic murder, rape, and torture of citizens on the ground has led to The Economist describing the Rohingyas as “the most persecuted minority in the world”.

Ironically, this has taken place against the backdrop of Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to power. Ms Suu Kyi had long been regarded as an icon for human rights, even winning a Nobel peace prize in 1991 for her resistance against the oppressive military regime which ruled over Burma with an iron fist. Her efforts in championing democracy finally came to fruition in November 2015, when Burma held its first contested national elections after five decades of military rule. Since then, Ms Suu Kyi has occupied a position of considerable power.

Despite this, Ms Suu Kyi has been largely reticent when it comes to discussing the Rohingyas. In 2012, she was criticized for her silence on the Rakhine State riots, wherein sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims led to 57 Rohingyas being killed by Buddhist mobs, and thousands of houses being burnt down. Her lack of responsiveness to these abuses undermines her claim to be a defender of human rights, and directly contributes to the continued plight of the Rohingyas. This is especially true given that she is uniquely placed to shine a spotlight on these abuses. Many people, both at home and abroad, look to her for inspiration and guidance, and so are likely to listen to what she says. Furthermore, her position means that she is capable of directly challenging the military and holding them accountable. Her silence is thus highly conspicuous.

Defenders of Ms Suu Kyi point to her precarious position. During this nascent transition to democracy, there exists an uneasy tension between the democratic government and the government’s military wing. The military still has exclusive jurisdiction over the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Home Affairs, and decisions taken in these areas remain beyond the reach of civilian scrutiny. Democracy remains palatable to the military only insofar as it retains this level of control. A direct challenge by Ms Suu Kyi would thus reduce the military’s commitment to democracy and risk a return to pure military rule. Furthermore, Ms Suu Kyi’s popularity stems in large part from her image as a champion of the people. Her power rests upon her cult of personality and the support she has garnered from the Burmese population. But many Buddhists would quickly turn away if she openly supported the rights of Rohingya Muslims, and a weakening of her position would reduce her capacity to advocate for reform and bargain with the military.

Unfortunately, the problem with the above analysis is that Ms Suu Kyi’s shortcomings go above and beyond a mere failure to act. We might be more forgiving if Ms Suu Kyi was merely neutral on the Rohingya crisis, but she has instead taken active steps to perpetuate and exacerbate the current situation. For example, she has actively attempted to discredit the Rohingyas, accusing them of fabricating the stories of rape and violence which the UN reported on. She has also rejected a UN fact-finding mission on this issue. More damningly, Ms Suu Kyi recently purged all Muslims from her party, the National League for Democracy, thereby denying them democratic representation and locking them out of Parliament. The narrative of securing rights for Burmese people was once the cornerstone of Ms Suu Kyi’s campaign for democracy; it is heart-wrenching that she has chosen to discard and subvert that narrative the moment it is no longer politically convenient for her.

Even at best, this is an attempt to play up populism in order to store up power at the expense of an already downtrodden minority – the alternative being to step aside, remain neutral, and let the UN place pressure upon the military. At worst, this is Ms Suu Kyi’s true face, a reminder that those we thought of as our heroes might nonetheless turn out to be the worst kinds of racist, leveraging upon their power to hasten the erasure of an entire minority group from the country’s population and the country’s history.

The more interesting question is whether any trade-off between the present rights of minorities, and the securing of democracy for the future, is ever legitimate in any circumstance. The world in which Burmese democracy collapses and the military retakes power is a world in which the Rohingyas continue to be persecuted without hope for reprieve. It is only with democracy that the Rohingyas have any chance at all of ending their suffering in the future. In other words, silence and non-intervention is theoretically an appropriate strategy if it allows for democracy to be sustained and developed. If that means ignoring the troubles of the Rohingyas, then so be it – the alternative is to take action and weaken their chances of a permanent resolution to the conflict. Good intentions are not enough; good intentions alone do not put food on the table, or a roof over your heads, or shield against machine gun fire. Good intentions are meaningless to the persecuted. It is concrete change and action that matter, and sometimes change requires doing nothing.

Unfortunately, non-intervention is not the strategy that Ms Suu Kyi has adopted, and her actions ought to be wholly condemned for their role in compounding the Rohingyas’ misery. The Rohingyas are in a difficult position, with no immediate solutions. The advent of democracy has brought them little comfort, and the party which swore to uphold the rights of the Burmese people has turned against them. Nestled in Southeast Asia, far away from the Western world, few have taken notice of their plight. Perhaps they would have been better off if Ms Suu Kyi had failed to take notice of them as well.

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