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A Rohingya Rubik’s Cube

Can the strangely silent Aung San Suu Kyi lead muddled Myanmar to a genuine national reconciliation and 'freedom from fear' as Rohingya persecution continues and foreign investment slows? Asean and the Pope weigh in.

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, April 2017

Myanmar Buddhist hardline monks say no to Rohingyas

Hardline Buddhist monks are opposed to the integration of Rohingya Muslims, making the issue a serious political challenge

IN 2010, a brave lady who had suffered years of incarceration – albeit at her grand home at the edge of the water in Yangon – was fast becoming an icon for the downtrodden everywhere. Hers was not a brutal or violent captivity, but a slow, mind dulling water drip of isolation designed to silence her and break her will. Or so the military junta thought.

That year, in July, Aung San Suu Kyi published a book, edited by her late British husband (denied entry to Myanmar despite creeping cancer) called, simply, Freedom from Fear. If that was not enough to stir hearts and minds, it also carried a moving foreword by Vaclav Havel and Desmond Tutu, the archbishop declaring his delight at the author’s commitment to “dialogue and reconciliation”.

Fast-forward to the present as the world watches aghast at the tragedy playing out in the all but abandoned Rakhine State tenuously clinging to the west coast of Burma. Myanmar’s lady of the lake has unflinchingly looked the other way as the army clamps down on freedoms, cuts off press access, and mobs wreak havoc on Muslim Rohingyas – the violence seemingly sanctioned by hardline nationalist Buddhist Ma Ba Tha monks more keen to shape politics than pagodas. Purity of religion (and by extension, race) is their exclusivist theme, which pits them directly against a perceived ‘Islamic invasion’. As gruesome reports of widespread looting, arson, rape and murder rise, it is worth quoting Ms Suu Kyi’s book of seminal writings now.
Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


Myanmar’s lady of the lake has unflinchingly looked the other way as... mobs wreak havoc on Muslim Rohingyas – the violence seemingly sanctioned by hardline nationalist Buddhist Ma Ba Tha monks more keen to shape politics than pagodas

“Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure... It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear… to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear.”

In a telling April 2017 interview with the BBC’s Fergal Keane, Ms Suu Kyi drew herself up, regal and straight-backed as ever to face his rather gently phrased, but well directed, criticisms. As talk of global ire mounted, she flatly denied the allegations, saying, “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use.” She focused on progress in “electrification” and “all weather roads [that] make a great difference to our lives.” It was a masterly stab at everything but the elephant in the room.

She talked, rightly, of taking the peace movement forward but, either due to deference to the army – which she does not control – fear of losing her hard-won position, or a deal with the junta, she rubbished any criticisms of Rakhine policy, suggesting “people are in place” to deal with things and they need time. This has been her standard response.

Over a dozen Nobel laureates recently wrote a strongly worded open letter to the United Nations Security Council condemning the Lady’s silence. “Despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [a Peace prize awardee], we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas,” they wrote. Archbishop Tutu was among these dissenting voices.

Pope Francis too has condemned the atrocities on Rohingyas on account of their “Muslim faith”. But not Ms Suu Kyi. “We welcome them [the Rohingya] back,” she responds. But how?

The Rohingya, understandably, are loath to return to the slaughter, and years of racial confrontation have resulted in a hardening of attitudes with some support for militant elements who view this as a life and death struggle for the community. It is all too easy to view this through the damning prism of jihad without looking deeper at the underlying racial rupture and feckless politics providing grist to any extremist mill. Since its independence from Britain in 1948 the country has faced a series of insurgencies from breakaway groups including the Karen and Shan. This has bled the country and strengthened the army’s iron-hand narrative.

Currently, according to UN estimates, over 65,000 Rohingya have fled the army crackdown to shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh. Perhaps the Ma Ba Tha and its instrument (the army), see ethnic cleansing – or a persuasive shove across the border – as the solution. After all, for many in Myanmar, the Rohingya are perceived as Muslim interlopers from the north who are occupying land illegally. The Rohingya argue they are historically descendants of ancient Arab traders and there is nothing illegal about their presence in Rakhine State. There is much to back this argument.

As talk of global ire mounted, she flatly denied it, saying, “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use.” She focused on “electrification” and “all weather roads [that] make a great difference to our lives.” It was a masterly stab at everything but the elephant in the room.

What is urgently needed is a cooperative regional approach – perhaps under UN guidance – to resolve the Rohingya’s status. As boat people pushed out of Myanmar, they have been firmly, even brutally, rejected by Thailand (one of Myanmar’s biggest investors) and other neighbours have been reluctant to open their doors. In May 2015 mass graves were unearthed in southern Thailand, later linked to Rohingya deaths (or killings) by human traffickers in turn suspected of collusion with state authorities, the police, the navy and the army.

Malaysia has an estimated 40,000 Rohingya seeking refugee status though it is not a signatory to any international UN refugee convention. The influx has provoked a dramatic escalation in regional tensions. Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, eager to consolidate the Muslim vote and, no doubt, unsettled by events in Myanmar, called upon the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to re-evaluate that country’s membership in Asean. “We want to tell Aung San Suu Kyi enough is enough,” he said in December 2016, breaking a long held convention of diplomatic silence within the group.

India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, has failed to recognise Rohingyas and its plans to deport as many as 40,000 “illegal settlers” back to Myanmar has drawn howls of protest from human rights organisations. Several Rohingya are located in the largely Muslim Jammu and Kashmir state. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken flak for its willingness to welcome Hindu refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan. But not Muslims?

That Aung San Suu Kyi is denying the ‘holocaust’ is not a surprise. She has maintained her line, steadfastly. Six months into her term she told The Washington Post that it would “take time” and she would not allow the country to be destabilised by jihad. Suspected Rohingya militants had attacked police posts in Rakhine killing nine policemen resulting in a huge army backlash. Then, as now, calls were made for a UN enquiry and, to her credit, in August 2016 Ms Suu Kyi brought in former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to look into the plight of the 1.2 million stateless Rohingya. (The population of Rakhine State is just over three million.)

“Deeply concerned” about human rights abuses but taking a soft line, Annan concluded that massive humanitarian aid and unimpeded media access was important for the region. Both have been derailed – the former by the Ma Ba Tha, which has gone so far as to evict some NGOs (that had the temerity to operate without its blessing), and the latter by the military.

The longer Ms Suu Kyi fails to act, the more institutionalised and hardened perceptions and attitudes are likely to become. Rakhine needs bold leadership and political will to cut the Gordian knot but currently the one person who could, and should be doing something about it, a Nobel peace laureate, remains curiously reticent.

There are interesting parallels with Mrs Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s shy daughter, who slipped quietly into politics and rose to be prime minister through great personal charisma and charm (with a little help from the family name), before giving in to deep rooted insecurity and fear – of loss of power, lack of money (to stay in power), and eroding popular support. Mrs Gandhi eventually lost all contact with reality as she shunned the press and prickled at any criticism levelled at her. She did whatever it took to stay in power, regardless of the cost and the excesses of her draconian Emergency. In the end, Mrs Gandhi’s splendid isolation proved to be her undoing.

Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak... called upon the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to re-evaluate that country’s membership in Asean. “We want to tell Aung San Suu Kyi enough is enough,” he said in December 2016

Is another lady who was ushered in with such hope and expectation, doomed to a similar fate? BBC’s Keane put it to Suu Kyi that she had more “steel” like a Margaret Thatcher than the gentle spirit of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Mother Theresa. She is certainly far stronger than she comes across and has endured much to become both state counsellor of Myanmar – the de facto head of the country, “above the president,” as she rather haughtily declared – and leader of the National League for Democracy. Yet her real prize must be the betterment of her country, for all, and not just her continued incumbency and a concentration of power in her hands that has created serious bottlenecking in decision-making.

A country long known for its Buddhist temperance is on the verge of coming to pieces with no leader willing, or with the necessary bold inclusive vision, to bell the cat. While the law has moved to limit the obstreperous Ma Ba Tha, its writ must be expanded and enforced. This is particularly true of the amendments to the ‘Race and Religion Protection’ laws seeking to shield women from violence and abuse.

The army – which seized power in a coup on 2 March 1962 replacing Prime Minister U Nu with General Ne Win and his autarkic socialism – has no plans to melt into the background. It is very much the dominant force in Myanmar. But it too recognises it needs the trappings of democracy to attract investment and international support for much needed economic development. Ms Suu Kyi is the key. She has the moral authority to encourage, if not demand, a more professional role for the army with more carrots and fewer sticks in its exercise of power. And she is very much Burma’s genteel international face, charged with oiling the rusty investment tap.

Access to information needs to be opened up. A long persecuted but vocal minority, journalists have taken to Facebook and the Web to get information out but Internet penetration is estimated at a paltry 20 percent. Than Htut Aung, the outspoken CEO of Eleven Media was arrested in November 2016 for ‘criminal defamation’ for reporting on alleged corruption in the Yangon mayor’s office. He was released on bail in January 2017, some would say as a result of a softer approach. The Irrawaddy paper has had journalists whisked away for reporting on a supposed chemical factory. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Washington lifted economic sanctions in October 2016 but investment has remained sluggish and the Burmese kyat has continued to plummet. According to the Nikkei Asian Review (January 2017), total foreign direct investment “approved between April and December 2016 stood at about $3.5bn, down 28 percent from the same period a year before.” It is a trend that is unlikely to reverse anytime soon.

Ms Suu Kyi must know that democracy, however flawed, has to be government for all, the demos. It cannot pander to religious or extremist philosophies. This is the key to unlocking investment and boosting trade. What Myanmar needs now, more than ever, is ‘freedom from fear’ and a commitment to dialogue and reconciliation, if the Lady is up to it.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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James Bleecher (13 April, 2017) – UK
About time someone seriously lambasted the elected Myanmar government for such a poor start. I'm not sure Suu Kyi on her own can effect much change. But she needs to make her voice heard surely! And on the right side!
Ramaswamy (11 April, 2017) – India
It's easy to pass judgement on Suu Kyi but remember it has been a long struggle for democracy in Burma. Things will need time to settle and she cannot bring about an instant miracle. But it is true she needs to be more vocal. – This comment has been edited
Patrick Foster (11 April, 2017) – USA
Aung San Suu Kyi's shocking silence is profound. Was there a global lapse in judgement when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? That award should be stripped in the light of recent events and her total inaction to help the Muslim minority.
Anup Kuruvilla (10 April, 2017) – India
Very well written and articulated. Feel sorry for Ms Suu Kyi...she possibly has her hands full keeping the peace both within her party and the uneasy truce with the Army...but she must realise that there is nothing for her to lose and she must stand up for Rohingyas..even if it means losing all that she has gained....at worst she will be put back into splendid isolation.....

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