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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 11, 2012

Rohingyas test Suu Kyi's credentials
By Ridwan Sheikh

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

A glitzy red carpet event in Capitol Hill in September saw the US Congressional Gold Medal award, the highest civilian accolade given by the US government, given to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar politician, for services to "democracy". Back home in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine it was a different picture. The killings and persecution of the Rohingyas, an ethnic minority group, went on unnoticed.

The hidden persecution of the Myanmar Rohingya Muslim minority is nothing new, dating back to the 15th century. Then, thousands of soldiers from Bengal arrived in the region, already

inhabited by a small Rohingya population, under the orders of Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah of Bengal, after Burma's Arakan king sought help from the shah, realizing his reign was under threat.

Following the king's dethronement by a Burmese opposition, the soldiers decided to settle in the region. Later, Arab seafarers visited and settled in the region, and soon a mix of Turks, Persians, Central Asians, Pathans and Bengalis, shaped the area.

The current xenophobia is a legacy of British colonization in the 19th century, when a huge influx of Indian immigrants settled in Myanmar, changing the economic landscape. While the newly arrived immigrants enjoyed the bounties of the British, with jobs in middle and upper civil positions, the local inhabitants were restricted to menial labor.

Holding on to that propaganda in today's Myanmar is mere fiction. It is misguided to believe the causes of dire economic despair for the nation's estimated 70 million people [1], is the work of roughly between 800,000 to 1 million poverty-stricken Rohingyas. [2]

In a bygone era, where anti-government protests dominated Myanmar's history, it is disturbing how its people and monks, who once called for an end to violations of human rights, are now the chief instigators of threats to wipe out an entire people.

It was thought that Aung San Suu Kyi's return to the political fold, following her release two years ago after house arrest of 15 years, would bring political reform to a nation ruled by the military for more than half a century. Two years later, nothing has changed.

The main antagonists of this tragedy, the Buddhist core, the military and police forces, and the silent Aung San Suu Kyi, have kept the flames of resentment burning by strengthening the people's warped perception of the Rohingyas, who routinely face discrimination, including large-scale arrests, rape, torture, random killings, looting and destruction of homes and property. [3]

The Dalai Lama's reaction was reduced to nothing more than a toned-down letter, written to Aung San Suu Kyi two months ago, describing how he felt "deeply saddened" and "very concerned" for the plight of the Rohingya people, while refusing to condemn the aggressors. His "holiness" brushed the matter aside, while continuing to tour the world, giving lectures on topics such as peace and conflict resolution in places like Kashmir.

A similar gesture was expressed by Aung San Suu Kyi, during her recent 17-day tour in the US, at the illustrious Harvard Kennedy School. During the question and answer session, one student bravely asked: "You have been quite reluctant to speak up against the human rights violations in Rakhine State against the Rohingya... Can you explain why you have been so reluctant?"

Aung San Suu Kyi responded sheepishly: "You must not forget that there have been human-rights violations on both sides of the communal divide. It's not a matter of condemning one community or the other. I condemn all human-rights violations."

This half-hearted response reaffirms the"arrangement" between the military junta and Aung San Suu Kyi allowing her to resume the leadership of the National League for Democracy political party on condition she doesn't criticize the ruling establishment.

Following decades of international isolation after economic sanctions were imposed by the US government in 1988, the Myanmar president, Thein Sein, visited the US in September 2012 signaling an end to the nation's economic and political exclusion. The meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paved the way for the US to relax its import sanctions on the nation.

Terms were further endorsed on November 19, when re-elected US President Barack Obama made an historic, fly-by visit to Myanmar, becoming the first US president to visit the nation.

While the media lapped up the sound bites of a bright economic future for Myanmar, the visit was of particular interest to the world's corporations, specifically US corporations, as it added substance to plans to ruthlessly exploit Myanmar's natural resources and tap into a gold-mine of cheap labor.

San Suu Kyi's inaction is beginning to undermine her credibility as a bastion of human rights and freedom. What are her motives to look the other way as Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims are being killed and routinely persecuted? Doesn't this silence threaten the very ideals of "Mother" Suu, as she is affectionately known, in her pursuit of freedom and justice in Myanmar?

Her political party, the National League for Democracy, is well aware of the persecution endured by this discarded community, but believe that joining the Myanmar people in rallying behind President Thein Sein's proposal of uprooting the Rohingya to another country is more important to maintain the popular support base for the political party.

The main reason for Aung San Suu Kyi's silence is the lure of the 2015 elections, as promised by the ruling government. The chance to govern Myanmar yields a far greater prize. If it means abandoning her principles and aligning herself to the majority view then so be it.

Central to the carte blanche policy of persecuting an entire people is the 1982 Citizenship law, which views the Rohingya's as "stateless", making them refugees in their own homeland. To Myanmar nationalist leaders, the legislation adds further credence to their rhetoric and subjugates an ethnic group to living in deplorable conditions, enduring crippling unemployment and having inadequate healthcare and education.

The major propaganda drive comes from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, (RNDP), a political party in the state of Rakhine, priding itself in promoting "democratic" values, with the slogan, "Democratic Voice of Burma", while excluding the Rohingyas in its definition of "Nationalities" - and it is very open about that.

Such hatred for an ethnic group reinforces the idea of how a nation's top-level propaganda and conditioning, over a period of time, can be absorbed into the veins of society and eventually lead to horrific consequences, where vehement blind hatred replaces logic and reason.

One group, Arakanese monks (the term referring to the term previously used for non-Muslim inhabitants of Arakan, now Rakhine, State) illustrated the hatred in society by taking part in a protest march opposed to the opening of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) offices near Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Unashamedly, President Thein Sein heeded such calls and halted the opening of OIC offices.

"I am amazed that they arrested peace activists demonstrating in Yangon [Rangoon] over Kachin state [in the country's strife-torn northeast), but just allow this promotion of hatred, especially by people like the monks, who would be the best actors to try to calm things down - it seems to be completely unbelievable," said Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, an independent human rights organization.

Meanwhile, at the All-Arakanese Monks' Solidarity Conference, a document was released that was reminiscent of Gestapo tactics, urging locals to take pictures of anyone alleged to be supporting the Rohingyas and distribute these images with the intention of targeting sympathizers to violent attacks by nationalist extremists.

It may be ludicrous to suggest a nation holds such a vindictive view against an ethnic minority group, as it is always a handful of rogue elements that wrongly represent a nation, but recent atrocities, such as the harrowing events in Rwanda and Srebrenica, have dispelled this popular belief.

The future of Myanmar remains ominous, perhaps mirroring China, where dissent is more tightly controlled, with little international media scrutiny and in Myanmar's case strangely no political pressure to halt these deplorable crimes against the Rohingyas.

1. Britain-based human rights agencies place the population as high as 70 million.
2. Source: Human Rights Watch.
3. Source: Burma Campaign UK.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Ridwan Sheikh began his editorial roots as the editor of a grassroots UK activist group, Stop political terror, (Ceased to Exist), which focused on UK terrorism legislation, especially cases of prisoners detained in Britain without charge. He completed his post-graduate diploma in Journalism from the London School of Journalism.

(Copyright 2012 Ridwan Sheikh) 

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