Is Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi allowing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

The Rohingya crisis continues as Aung San Suu Kyi struggles to maintain her influence over the military.

By Fiona Ophelia Tang, Edited by Isabel Yeo

For the last few months, all eyes had been on Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi. Once admired for her hard-fought dream of bringing political and social change to Myanmar, this bastion of peace and democracy has been under much global scrutiny for not putting her promises into practice.

“I want them to feel that it is they (the people) who will decide what the destiny of the country is; that they [the people] will have the proper means to shape the destiny of the country,” she said in 2010.

However, it has appeared that at least one group of people have been excluded in Myanmar’s future – the Rohingya minorities of the Rakhine region. Not only have they been denied citizenship by the Myanmar government, but for the past few months, the Rohingya have been the target of a protracted crackdown by Myanmar’s military forces. The United Nations has dubbed this as a “ textbook example of Ethnic cleansing”.

A small attack against a security outpost in 2016 catalysed the current crisis.

After years of alleged oppression by the military of Myanmar, some Rohingyas decided to stage an attack against a military security post in October 2016. Under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, insurgents killed nine military officers. The military soon responded with force, and six weeks later, the more than a hundred Rohingyas were killed with much more arrested by the military. More than 150,000 people had no access to basic provisions.

The violence did not abate, and the repercussions have only multiplied since. Villages were burned down, and unarmed civilians were executed and killed. More than 450,000 refugees left stranded along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Others have fled further along the sub-continent.


Source: AI Jazeera and Agencies

Aung San Suu Kyi’s has faced much criticism over her poor response to the Crisis

Despite the reported atrocities, Burma’s Iron Lady has remained unmoved by the ongoing violence and the widespread displacement of the Rohingya from their Rakhine homes.

After months of silence, Aung San Suu Kyi’s first public speech addressing the Rohingya Crisis was disappointing. Many were hoping for the Nobel Laureate to finally address the oppression happening in the Rakhine, but instead, she merely offered placatory statements, without explicitly addressing the reports of atrocities committed by the military. She also made several dubious claims about the Rohingya in an attempt to downplay the severity situation. While Aung San Suu Kyi had not expressed overt anti-Muslim sentiments, her empty promises and choice of words had prompted some to suspect an underlying discrimination.

Strikingly, the only time Suu Kyi used the word “Rohingya” in her 30-minute long speech was in the context of naming the Rohingya militant group – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

A professor at the Queen Mary University of London, Penny Green, viewed this as intentional. “She chooses to use the word in relation to a terrorist group, that means that is the only identity that Rohingya will be attached to, from her perspective and she hopes from the international perspective,” Green said.

The world has wondered why she has not acted in a manner befitting of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her fellow Nobel Laureates are similarly perplexed. On Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to defend the Rohingya, Indian Nobel Peace Prize Winner Kailash Satyarthi said “almost the entire Nobel Peace laureate community is hugely disappointed with our fellow Nobel laureate Suu Kyi. We have written to her.”

However, the Rohingya Crisis is not one that Suu Kyi can quickly solve. 

Myanmar’s powerful military, the Tatmadaw, has been identified as the primary aggressors in this Crisis. Despite being State Counsellor, Suu Kyi has not been able to wield much control over the Tatmadaw. The military has held a quarter of Myanmar’s parliamentary seats, and they have also appointed the Ministers for Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defense – three critical ministries within the Government.

Suu Kyi’s relationship with the military has also been a tense one, with the latter drafting the nation’s constitution in 2008 to prevent her from becoming the President of Myanmar. While Suu Kyi certainly had greater agency over her verbal responses to the Rohingya crisis, it was unlikely that she could have challenged the Tatmadaw and effected tangible change in the Rakhine.

Public opinion has also been against the Rohingyas. “The narrative is that Muslims are migrants. They are basically the guests of this country, yet they insult their host,” said a government official.

Burma’s Iron Lady remained stuck between the expectations of the international community, her promises and policies as well as the overbearing and all-powerful military of Myanmar.

The first step to solving this situation is welcoming the international community’s help.

Help for the Rohingyas had come from the international community and not the local government thus far. In the last decade, the European Union provided more than US$153 million (€ 115 million) in Humanitarian Aid to displaced Rohingyas across Asia. The money was used to give the Rohingyas with food and nutrition, essential health services, sanitation and shelter.

However, some groups have faced many barriers in helping the Rohingyas. Doctors Without Borders announced that “international staff have not been granted travel authorizations to visit the health facilities since August, while national staff have been too afraid to go to work following remarks by Myanmar officials accusing NGOs of colluding with (militant groups).” International journalists have also found it challenging to access Rohingya villages freely.

Since Suu Kyi herself has not been able to help the Rohingyas, she should work to allow international humanitarian organisations and media outlets to do so. After all, they once helped her overcome her own political battles.