Aung San Suu Kyi’s disgraceful complicity in Myanmar’s ethnic cleasing of the Rohingya Muslims
May 2016; last updated April 2017
(The updated part is mostly in Update 3: ethnic clearance)
Remember Aung San Suu Kyi, darling of western liberals, heroine of democracy and human rights, under house arrest in Burma for her beliefs for 15 years before being triumphantly elected as her country’s leader? Well, treasure the golden memory – the reality is disappointingly tarnished.
Suu Kyi’s saintly image suffered badly at an internationally covered election campaign press conference in November 2015. Questioned about the the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (the new name for Burma), she shocked her worldwide fans by saying only that that it was important not to exaggerate.
As the informed watching world knew, it would have been hard to exaggerate the problems faced by the Rohingya people. They’ve been violently persecuted for many years by state-backed Buddhists in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine. They’re one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. (The UN is supposed to have said that. Apparently they didn’t, but in any case it’s evidently true.)
Since then, Suu Kyi’s image has gone from bad to worse. She won the election as expected. She’s now Myanmar’s State Counsellor – effectively its prime minister – and (despite her government being dominated by unelected junta leftovers) is in a postion to help the Rohingya by at least speaking out about their plight.
Instead, as the violence continues, so does Suu Kyi’s shameful indifference. The Nobel peace prize winner is not making peace. Known as The Lady, she’s not being very ladylike – she’s callously doing nothing about it, apart from criticising the critics and telling them to give her government ‘space‘.
(However…see Update 2, below, about an advisory commission Suu Kyi has set up, chaired by Kofi Annan.)
(But…see Update 3, below, about the vicious resumption of ethnic cleansing.)
There’s widespread hostility towards the one-million-plus Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, including among some within Suu Kyi’s own party. Myanmar doesn’t recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group. It denies them citizenship and basic rights. The previous military junta called them ‘Bengalis’, implying that they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though the Rohingya have had a well established presence in the country since at least the twelfth century.
The history of the Rohingya is the subject of academic disagreement in the region. Some academics support the Myanmar government’s line, claiming that the name ‘Rohingya’ is a political invention by Bangladeshi immigrants who have no particular ethnic identity. Others with more integrity argue that the name dates back to at least the 1700s, and that despite historical migrations to and from what is now Bangladesh, the Rohingya have a long history in Rakhine and a distinct ethnic identity.
Suu Kyi’s government has continued with the policy of claiming that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants. Min Aung Hlaing, smiling head of Myanmar’s powerful military, said at a 2016 press conference, ‘As we have said before, there are no Rohingya.’
Neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh also doesn’t allow Rohingyas citizenship. In the late 1970s some 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, claiming that the Burmese army had forcibly evicted them, and alleging widespread army brutality, rape and murder. Bangladesh negotiated their return and encouraged it by restricting food supplies. Then in the early 1990s more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh from forced labour, rape and religious persecution at the hands of the Burmese army. They were brutally repatriated to Burma, a process shamefully overseen by the UN. Respected non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch gives the background and history of these events.
There’s a complex history (2) of conflict over land and resources. In 2012 this led to waves of mob violence against the Rohingya led by hardline Buddhist priests and politicians, and covertly backed by the state. Hundreds of Rohingya were murdered. No one has been prosecuted for the killings.
More than 100,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes and live in decrepit internment camps where they are denied medical services and adequate food. Thousands have tried to escape to Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand on rickety boats. Many Rohingyas, having reached Malaysia and Thailand, are being held in detention centres there.
Aid agencies estimate that over one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the last 40 years as a result of persecution. (3)
The International State Crime Initiative (4) argues that the violence and forced removal amounts to ethnic cleansing, and has reached stage four of six (5) in the process of genocide. Genocide Watch (6) says that the Myanmar regime’s gross human rights abuses and its persecution of the Rohingya persist alongside a pervasive culture of impunity; and that the situation may have reached stages nine and ten of their ten-stage model of genocide (7).
In May 2016, Suu Kyi’s ministry of foreign affairs asked the US ambassador to stop using the term ‘Royingya’, which they said was ‘controversial‘. To the USA’s credit, the ambassador said he’d continue to use the term, because that’s what the group calls itself. The European Union, by comparison, has cravenly caved in to Suu Kyi’s demand (see below).
Most disappointing of all, Suu Kyi herself seems to be anti-Muslim. She made an off-key off-air comment after being interviewed by Mishal Husain, Muslim presenter of Today, BBC Radio’s flagship UK news and current affairs programme. Suu Kyi lost her temper during the interview when Husain repeatedly asked her to condemn the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. Suu Kyi answered angrily and evasively, and after the interview was heard to say, ‘No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.’
When US secretary of state John Kerr delicately raised concerns about the issue during a visit, Suu Kyi responded: ‘All that we are asking is that people should be aware of the difficulties we are facing and to give us enough space to solve all our problems.’
Weasel words, Suu. Your halo’s slipping – off. What will Dave Lee Travis (8) think? What will the world – previously your oyster, thanks to your massive international support – think?
Sadly, the world will think you’ve gone from saintly reformer to either hypocritical racist or, at best, paralysed pragmatist. The world will think that your main concern is either to hang on to power or, at best, to preserve Myanmar’s nascent democracy.
You’ve squandered the world’s good will, Suu. The world will think that, whatever you’ve become and whatever your motives, you’re willingly fronting one of the worst governments in the world, with self-indulgent brutal hatred bordering on racism, at its rotten heart.
(I think we’re all racist, and it doesn’t take much to provoke it; but that if we understand the deep roots of our racism, we can choose not to indulge it. See my post about racism, Colour me racist, blame my genes.)
Update 1: UN alleges systemic discrimination
Following its shameful part in the Bangladesh deportation (see above), the UN has partly redeemed itself by issuing a report that urges Suu Kyi’s government to take concrete steps to end the ongoing systemic discrimination and human rights violations against the Rohingya – violations that the UN says could amount to crimes against humanity.
Suu Kyi’s brilliant response has been to tell a visiting UN human rights investigator that the Myanmar government will not use the ‘controversial‘ term ‘Rohingya’.
Sickeningly, European Union ambassador to Myanmar Roland Kobia said in June 2016 that the EU will stop using the term ‘Rohingya’. He pathetically echoed Suu Kyi’s weasel words by adding that Myanmar needs ‘space’ to deal with human rights abuses. Thank goodness the UK’s leaving the spineless, weaselly EU.
Update 2: Kofi Annan’s commission
Suu Kyi responded to international pressure by appointing an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. She somehow persuaded fellow Nobel peace prize winner and former UN head Kofi Annan to chair it. There are two hardline hate-mongering Rakhine Buddhists on board. There are, of course, no Rohingya representatives – after all, they don’t exist.
The commission was strongly opposed by Myanmar nationalists, so perhaps Suu Kyi finally did something right. It started in September 2016 and is due to report a year later. Let’s hope there are still some Rohingya left alive by then.
The Annan commission’s interim report has called for the closure of Myanmar’s squalid internment camps, where 120,000 Rohingya have lived since the hardline Buddhist violence in 2012.
Annan told Reuters, ‘They [should] close the camps and allow the people in the camps, particularly those who have gone through the [citizenship] verification process, access to freedom of movement and all rights of citizenship‘.
Well said, Kofi. You listening, Suu?
But Suu Kyi has stamped her absurd ban on the name ‘Rohingya’ onto the commission. In a section headed ‘Nomenclature‘, the interim report says:
In line with the request of the State Counsellor [Suu Kyi], the Commission uses neither the term “Bengali” nor “Rohingya”, who are referred to as “Muslims” or “the Muslim community in Rakhine”. This does not include the Kaman Muslims, who will simply be referred to as “Kaman”.
So the Kaman Muslims (a smaller ethnic group of Rakhine Muslims recognised as Myanmar citizens) can be called ‘Kaman’, but the Rohingya Muslims can’t be called ‘Rohingya’ – because they don’t exist, of course. The quote above contains the only use of the name ‘Rohingya’ in the report.
Disappointingly craven, Kofi. Still, at least Suu Kyi also asked the commission not to use the name ‘Bengali‘ – the name used by the previous military junta to falsely suggest that the Rohingya were actually illegal Bengali immigrants. Perhaps there’s a tiny spark of conscience still in there somewhere.
Update 3: Ethnic clearance
It didn’t take long for the Myanmar government to resume its brutal ethnic cleansing. Claiming that nine police officers and five soldiers were killed by ‘insurgents’ at border posts, Government forces responded by looting and burning villages and carrying out helicopter gunship attacks. At least 100 Rohingya were killed. The government claimed that their forces were attacked by men with guns, spears, machetes and wooden clubs, and that they responded with a ‘clearing’ operaton. Quite.
Images and videos on social media showed women and children among those killed. The army was accused of raping Rohingya women. Unbelievably (in both senses) the the government said that the ‘insurgents’ had burned their own homes to discredit the army.
During the conflict, Slippery Suu avoided journalists and press conferences. However, on a Japanese jaunt to get an honorary doctorate she was reportedly challenged by the Japanese foreign minister. Suu Kyi replied that the military in Rakhine was operating according to the ‘rule of law‘. Nice one, Doc.
Satellite images released by Human Rights Watch (an NGO known for its impartial reporting) showed that more than 1,200 homes were razed in Rohingya villages during the military operation. The United Nations estimated that 30,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes into Bangladesh. Bangladesh turned many refugees back from the border, and complained to the Myanmar government.
Rohingya refugees from the military crackdown have joined the many thousands who have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh over the last 40 years. Estimates of the number of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh before the current displacement vary wildly from 35,000 to 500,000. The unreliability of the estimates is a sad indication of the world’s neglect. Most of the refugees in Bangladesh, as with most Rohingya refugees elsewhere, live in squalid camps, lacking adequate food and medical care.
The UN called for an investigation into alleged human rights abuses. A senior UN official said that Myanmar was seeking the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority from its territory. Suu Kyi announced a government-led investigation. Big deal.
Muslim-majority Malaysia spoke up, also describing the violence against the Rohingya as ‘ethnic cleansing‘. At a solidarity rally in Kuala Lumpur, prime minister Najib Razak asked the angry crowd, ‘What’s the use of Aung San Suu Kyi having a Nobel prize?’ Good question.
Suu Kyi’s government investigation found – surprise, surprise! – that the security forces had followed the law. So that’s alright, then. However, a report by Amnesty International accused the Myanmar military of ‘crimes against humanity’. The Amnesty report called on the Myanmar government and Suu Kyi to order a stop to the violence, publically condemn rights violations, allow unimpeded access to Rakhine and launch an impartial investigation with the UN. Yeah, right – dream on.
ASEAN regional leaders met in Yangon (Myanmar’s largest city, formerly its capital, also known as Rangoon) for emergency talks on the violence. Pressurised by the intervention of neighbouring Muslim-majority states Indonesia and Malaysia, Suu Kyi reluctantly addressed the meeting – only to repeat her ridiculous assertion that the army action was legitimate.
The Myanmar government invited Kofi Annan’s advisory committee (see update 2, above) to look into the situation. Disappointingly, Annan reportedly said that observers should be ‘very, very careful‘ in using the word genocide, and that Suu Kyi’s government should be given ‘a bit of time, space and patience’. Oh dear – there’s that weasel word again.
Annan is probably right to say that ‘genocide’ is an exaggeration, but perhaps the great man should be ‘very, very careful’ not to blow his credibility. He’s sounding worryingly like Suu Kyi, with her ‘Don’t exaggerate’, and her ‘Give us space’. At this rate, next thing, Annan will refuse to use the name ‘Rohingya’. (And guess what – he’s done just that, at Suu Kyi’s request. See Update 2 / March 2017, above.)
It was widely reported that – for what it was worth (not much) – 23 of the great and good had written an open letter to the (useless) UN security council about it, describing the action as ethnic cleansing, and demanding that the council put it on their to-do list. More than a dozen of Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel laureates signed, including Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai. The letter was wordy but well meant and heartfelt. Perhaps they hoped to stir the dozy security council into action, or at least add to the embarrassment factor for Suu Kyi. (However, our former human rights heroine seems unembarrassable.)
Suu Kyi’s commission of investigation said that there was no evidence of genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. In its interim report, the commission, led by hardline former regional military ruler and current co-vice president Myint Swe, also said there wasn’t enough evidence to support widespread rape allegations. It didn’t mention claims that security forces had been killing people.
The UK’s secondary parliamentiary body, the House of Lords, held a debate on a question tabled by activist and Labour peer Baroness Kinnock about the Rohingya, and the UK government’s response to their current plight. Four baronesses, three lords and one bishop made knowledgeable and compassionate speeches.
UK government minister Baroness Goldie replied in the same vein, saying that UK ministers have raised this issue in parliament and in direct discussions with the Myanmar government. She said that the UK government is deeply concerned about the recent military action and the lack of humanitarian access
The UK didn’t find Mint Swe’s commission of investigation (see above) credible, and has expressed its concerns to the UN security council. Goldie ended by saying that the UK government is wary of doing anything which might impede Myanmar’s legitimate democratic development.
That’s not good enough. As elsewhere, the UK bears considerable historical colonial responsibility for the mess left behind. It should be clear by now that the diplomatic approach has failed. The junta-heavy Myanmar government is no democracy. The UK government is defending a dictatorship that’s wearing Suu Kyi like window dressing. They should should be defending the Rohingya.
The Bangladeshi goverment showed great compassion for its opressed Muslim neighbours by planning to forcibly relocate the recently arrived Rohingya refugees to an even more squalid site. A push to attract tourists was the reason for the move, which had the backing of controversial prime minister Hasina Wazed.
The squalid refugee colony, home to the newly exiled Rohingya, is near the world’s longest unbroken beach – and Bangladesh’s largest resort. Officials feared the refugees might put off would-be holidaymakers, and ordered their forced relocation to a vulnerable island before being repatriated to Myanmar.
The island, flooded by several feet of water at high tide, has no roads or flood defences. It was formed about a decade ago by sediment from a river. Nice. Thanks, Hasina, for your generous hospitality.
UN officials estimated that the death toll from the government ‘clearance’ operation was closer to 1,000. The number who had fled to neighbouring Bangladesh was now thought to be 70,000.
Mass gang-rape, killings (including of babies and young children), brutal beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations by Myanmar’s security forces were detailed in a UN report based on interviews with victims in Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government said that its ‘clearance operation’ had ‘ceased‘. Suu Kyi’s office issued this statement:
‘The situation in northern Rakhine has now stabilised. The clearance operations undertaken by the military have ceased, the curfew has been eased and there remains only a police presence to maintain the peace.’
Thats nice, Suu – to describe as ‘peace‘ the aftermath of the army’s 1,000 killings (including the killing of women, children and babies), gang rape, the looting and burning of homes, and the displacement of 70,000 people.
The spineless, weaselly European Union (see Update 1, above, on the EU’s decision not to use the name ‘Rohingya’) blocked a full UN investigation. The EU historically takes the lead on issues relating to Myanmar on the UN human rights council, which held its annual session in Switzerland.
The UN commissioner for human rights wanted a top-level commission of investigation, but the useless EU wanted to give Myanmar’s discredited internal investigation more time. Bless.
The UK wasn’t much better, I’m sorry to say. Our man at the council said that the international community needed to ‘engage (Myanmar) without damaging the delicate civilian-military balance‘.
It was reported that the Bangladeshi government strongly discouraged the distribution of aid to Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh banned three NGOs from distributing aid, saying that it would encourage more refugees to cross the border. The Bangladeshi interior and foreign ministries apparently declined to comment.
Kofi Annan’s advisory commission on Rakhine state (see update 2, above) published its interim report on 16 March. In the introduction, Annan, whose commission was asked in December 2016 to look into the current crisis (see above), said,
‘The nature of the crisis facing Rakhine state has changed due to the attacks of 9 October  and the subsequent security operations…We as the Advisory Commission are guided by our mandate to focus mainly on long-standing obstacles to peace and development in Rakhine State…Nevertheless, there are steps that can be taken immediately…[including] unimpeded access for humanitarian actors and journalists to the affected areas in Northern Rakhine and for independent and impartial investigation of the allegations of crimes committed on and since 9 October 2016. We strongly believe that perpetrators of these crimes must be held to account.’
Well said, Kofi – that’s better than your useless comment in December 2016 (see above). Now try to get the UN to pull its finger out.
The EU submitted its weaselly, watered-down resolution to the UN human rights council, presumably with the support of the UK (see above). The resolution (click on ‘E‘ to download it) on the Rohingya, which did at least use their name, was adopted by the council. The resolution specified a weedy ‘fact-finding mission‘, not the high-powered commission of inquiry needed. Pathetic.
Predictably, Suu Kyi rejected the UN decision. In a televised speech, she said that her government will refuse to accept the fact-finding mission. Myanmar’s military head Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech that the mission was a threat to national security.
Without Myanmar’s cooperation, the UN’s fact-finding mission – already toothless – becomes a paper tiger.
Suu Kyi’s first interview this year (with BBC TV) sadly confirmed her shameful indifference to the terrible plight of the Rohingya. Speaking like a cut-price Thatcher, she said that there was no ethnic cleansing, and spoke instead about attacks by Muslims on fellow-Muslims who’d collaborated with the authorities. In a strangely worded comment on the widely alleged troop atrocities, she said that troops had not been ‘free’ to commit crimes. ‘They are not free to rape, pillage and torture,’ she said. ‘They are free to go in and fight.’ Right, thanks, Suu.
Suu Kyi had a sickly, medicated look. I hope she’s OK. Maybe she should consider her legacy, or at least her priorities. Her ambitious programme – to sort out Myanmar’s basket-case economy, make peace amongst the warring factions and bring the military under democratic control – looks unrealistic, but with a change of heart she could speak out in support of Myanmar’s opressed Rohingya Muslims; she could grant them citizenship. At a stroke, she’d regain the world’s support – which would give her leverage to clear out the junta.
India’s right-wing BJP government is adding to Rohingya misery by backing local moves to deport 8,000 Rohingya refugees from the city of Jammu back to Myanmar. 40,000 refugees fled to India from Myanmar army brutality in 2012
Suu Kyi’s government planned to resettle refugees returning from Bangladesh in ‘model villages‘. The returnees weren’t allowed to permanently rebuild their homes – burnt by security forces – in their villages where they farm and fish. The government planned instead to move them to concentration camps. The UN has criticised the plan.
Suu Kyi confirmed her rejection of the UN fact-finding mission at a UN meeting press conference in Brussels. She said, ‘we do not think that the (UN) resolution is in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground’. A UK Guardian editorial about this said that Suu Kyi’s ‘moral credibility has been vastly diminished if not demolished by her failure to even acknowledge the brutal persecution of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state’.
Footnotes – serious stuff
Footnote 1. Dr Nora Rowley
Dr Rowley, besides being an accomplished photographer, is a human rights activist and advocate for the Rohingya. I contacted her about this post. She replied, saying that Suu Kyi is powerless to change anything because the military still control the government, and they continue to oppress the Rohingya and other minority groups.
Fair point, but even so, Suu Kyi’s attitude stinks. She has the world’s ear and, as the Dalai Lama has told her, could at least speak out on behalf of the Rohingya. Instead, she tells the UN that she won’t use their name.
Footnote 2. Economist article: The Rohingyas – The most persecuted people on Earth?
This article explains the complex history of the conflict in exhaustive detail, with the aid of a map and some charts.
Footnote 3. Aljazeera map of fleeing Rohingya
Footnote 4. International State Crime Initiative
This UK-based research centre aims to further the understanding of state crime, nicely defined as organisational deviance violating human rights. Penny Green, professor of law and globalisation at Queen Mary University, London, and a director of ISCI, says in the Economist article referenced above that the situation has reached stage four of ISCI’s six stages of genocide.
Footnote 5. Feierstein/ISCI’s six steps to genocide
1. Stigmatisation and dehumanisation ✔
2. Harassment, violence and terror ✔
3. Isolation and segregation ✔
4. Systematic weakening of the group ✔
5. Mass annihilation
6. Erasure from the country’s history
Formulated by Daniel Feierstein in his book, Genocide as Social Practice, and adapted by ISCI (above). Feierstein is director of the Centre of Genocide Studies at the National University of Tres de Febrero, Buenos Aires. He gives his views on the legal difficulties of holding modern genocide perpetrators to account in this Logos article.
Footnote 6. Genocide Watch
This US-based NGO co-ordinates the International Alliance to End Genocide, a coalition of 40 campaign groups. Genocide Watch’s most recent statement on the Rohingya says that Myanmar may have reached stages nine and ten of Genocide Watch’s ten stages of genocide.
Footnote 7. Genocide Watch’s ten steps to genocide
1. Classification ✔
2. Symbolisation ✔
3. Discrimination ✔
4. Dehumanisation ✔
5. Organisation ✔
6. Polarisation ✔
7. Preparation ✔
8. Persecution ✔
9. Extermination ?
10. Denial ?
Formulated by Gregory Stanton, founder and president of Genocide Watch (above), and research professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University, Virginia, USA.
Footnotes – trivia
Footnote 8. Dave Lee Travis
Known as DLT, Travis was a very successful UK BBC radio DJ and regular Top of the Pops TV presenter in the 70s and 80s. On his popular weekend breakfast show he called himself The Hairy Cornflake. In the 80s and 90s he presented a BBC World Service music request show supposedly much enjoyed by Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest. After her release she spoke publicly of her regard for Travis. This charmingly incongruous pairing caught the UK public’s attention. in 2010, Suu Kyi met Travis at the BBC in London. The reputation of both has suffered since that meeting.
DLT’s well-known downfall – the little-known facts
After a high-profile arrest in 2012 by London Metropolitan Police’s Operation Yewtree, which was investigating historical allegations of sexual abuse by DJ Jimmy Savile and others, Travis was charged in 2013 with 14 offences. In 2014 he was found not guilty on twelve counts, and the jury failed to reach a verdict on the remaining two counts. At a second trial he was found guilty of one count of indecent assault on a 22-year-old woman in 1995. In September 2014, he was sentenced to three months imprisonment, suspended for two years. The judge said that the offences of other Yewtree convictees were of a different order of magnitude compared to Travis’s. He lost an appeal in 2015. To cover his three-year legal costs, he sold his mansion and moved to a bungalow. He lost his commercial radio work when he was arrested. He says that as a result of the long, drawn-out legal process his wife’s health has suffered. (Send him a card, Suu. He’s paid his debt – and more.)
Or was it Bob?
Some say that Suu Kyi got her World Service presenters mixed up, and she was actually thinking of a similar show presented by Bob Holness, much-loved presenter of 80s UK TV teenage quiz show Blockbuster. In any case, at the time of Suu Kyi’s UK visit in 2010, Holness was very ill, and probably wouldn’t have been able to meet her. Sadly, he died in 2012, aged 83.
Hello Goodbye by The Beatles
This McCartney song was a massive hit single worldwide and a track on side two (the singles side) of the US Magical Mystery Tour album. Featuring Paul’s experimental minimalist lyrics, it’s beautiful, but underrated (especially by John, who thought his ‘I Am The Walrus‘, the single’s B side, should have been the A side).
Copyright Northern Songs, 1967. Title borrowed and mangled without permission. Halo goodbye…geddit? Please yourself. (I thought my title was original. But if you google ‘halo goodbye’, it’s not. 😨 Oh well, never mind.)
Call me Suu
Apparently, Aung San Suu Kyi’s friends call her ‘Suu’. We western liberals spent so long supporting her during her house arrest that we feel she’s a friend – one we’re a bit worried about.
That’s enough footnotes – Ed
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