The Silent Dissident: Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the plight of the Rohingyas

During her recent trip to the United States, Nobel Prize winning Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took to the stage at the San Francisco Freedom Forum to accept the inaugural Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. However one couldn’t help but feel that “the lady” who accepted the prize on Saturday was very different from the lady who was conferred the award. The award was conferred to a Suu Kyi who is considered one of the world’s most celebrated pro-democracy campaigners; a fearless human rights advocate and a hero to other activists around the world including the late Havel himself. But the Suu Kyi who accepted the award on Saturday was perhaps nothing more or less than a cautious and calculative politician.

This transformation has been nowhere more evident than in her continued silence over the issue of the sectarian unrest in Burma’s west between the Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas.  Ongoing sporadic violence between the two groups has taken the lives of hundreds and displaced thousands on both sides though the loss on the Rohingya’s side has been much more.  The Rohingyas have traditionally been discriminated against by the Buddhist majority, so much so that it has led to the United Nations describing them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Since 1982, when the-then head of state General Ne Win reframed citizenship laws leading to the Rohingyas being considered illegal aliens in a land that they had inhabited as early as the 8th century, at least 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh.

Their living conditions in Bangladesh weren’t any better even though they escaped the religious persecution they faced back in Burma. The Bangladesh government, already facing problems of widespread poverty and resource crunch, reluctantly offered a helping hand under increasing pressure from the international community and its own citizens who were sympathetic to the Rohingyas. After the latest episode of violence though, the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made it clear that they would seal their borders and not let in the thousands of Rohingyas who were fleeing murder, rape and torture in Burma.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s silence is especially alarming considering the regional repercussions of the issue, which she will have to deal with if, her government comes to power in 2015. Bangladesh’s stance with Rohingyas has led to some quarters crying foul over its handling of the case of Bangladeshi citizens who have migrated to the state of Assam in neighboring India where a separate case of violence between the indigenous Bodos and the Bengali speaking Muslims has erupted recently, a large number of whom have resided in Assam for decades. These clashes have led to the death of many on both sides and in turn has led to hostility towards citizens of North East India, of which Assam is a part and a mass exodus of the North-Easterners from major Indian cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad.

However, there’s an even bigger underlying problem that has the potential to lead to a standoff between the three countries if not now, then by the time Ms. Suu Kyi’s government comes to power. The government of Bangladesh has suggested that members of the Rohingya community have links to fundamentalist groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has in turn led the Burmese authorities to dub the Rohingyas as ‘Islamic insurgents’. The irony of the situation is that similar concerns, however dubious they may be have been, have been raised against Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam by the local authorities who suggest their links to organizations such as the Bangladeshi terror outfit, Harkat ul Jihad Islami, which has undertaken major attacks within India. All this poses an enormous danger to the regional peace and stability and can create a potentially awkward diplomatic standoff, which is the last thing Ms. Suu Kyi needs as she tries to gather more support from the international community in helping rebuild Burma.

Voices from all over the world, including government authorities and human rights groups have urged Ms. Suu Kyi to take an explicit stand against the violent repression of the Rohingyas. However, her views on the issue have been vague and ambiguous at best. She has suggested that there has been human rights abuses on both sides, which while factually true vastly undermines the disproportionate suffering of the Rohingyas. She has further stated that the need of the hour is to ‘”clarify” citizenship laws and grant equal citizenship to all ethnic minorities. On the face of it, this might suggest that she is calling for more rights for the Rohingyas. But the statement conveniently hides the fact that officially Burma doesn’t recognize Rohingyas as ethnic minorities as they are not even considered citizens.

Politically, Suu Kyi doesn’t have much to gain but a lot to lose by opening her mouth on the matter. By taking a stand against the violence, she risks losing the electoral support of not only the Rakhine population who hugely outnumber the disfranchised Rohingyas, but also the rest of the Buddhist majority of Burma who consider the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and a threat to the security and stability of their nation. As Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, Maung Zarni says, “She (Ms. Suu Kyi) is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote.”

During her speech at the San Francisco Freedom Forum, Ms. Suu Kyi expressed her initial unwillingness about speaking on the topic given to her – “The Long Road to Freedom.” She said that she wished to speak about the life of the great dissident, Havel instead. Havel once said, “Without free, self-respecting and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.” Perhaps she should remind herself of Havel’s idea of a free nation as she embarks upon Burma’s long and treacherous road to freedom.

Join the South Asian Political Committee today for a student roundtable to discuss the issue of the Rohingyas and other such problems of displacement and migration in South Asia.