The Rohingya Muslim minority of Myanmar has long suffered discrimination, persecution and violence. But as a new horrific wave of brutality has swept over Rakhine state, where most of the country’s Rohingya live in poverty, the question that has been asked over and over must now be shouted: When will Aung San Suu Kyi — the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, icon of democracy and de facto leader of the country — stand up for the democratic rights of this persecuted group?
The latest violence began with an Aug. 25 attack by Rohingya insurgents on 30 police posts and an army base that left 12 security officers and 77 insurgents dead, according to the Myanmar government. The government has responded to the attack — as it did after a similar attack by militants in October — with a sweeping scorched-earth campaign, killing hundreds of Rohingya civilians and burning their villages. (The government says the Rohingya burned down their own villages but offers no proof of that.) This time, the violence has triggered an exodus of more than 120,000 desperate people fleeing on foot through mud and over hilly terrain, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh, where conditions are grim if not quite as dangerous. The million or so who remain face an increasing risk of food shortages and additional violence, according to Amnesty International.
The stateless Rohingya are seen by the Buddhist majority and the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, as little more than trespassers in the country. They have been denied citizenship, access to healthcare and education and other rights. Tens of thousands have been driven from their homes by violence over the years and have been consigned to squalid camps. Most are denied the right to work and other benefits of citizenship. In recent months, aid agencies say they have been blocked from entering Rakhine state by the Myanmar government.
Suu Kyi needs to rediscover her roots as a moral leader.
Regardless of what one thinks of the insurgency, surely this much is clear: It’s unconscionable for a military to respond to attacks by killing civilians and obliterating whole villages. And it’s Suu Kyi’s responsibility to speak out.
Around the world, Suu Kyi is revered as an advocate for human rights. She endured 15 years of house arrest under the former military government. That meant living apart from her husband, who died abroad, and apart from her children. The epitome of moral courage, she never wavered from her democratic principles and became a hero to many in her country and around the world. After being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and being released from house arrest, she won a seat in parliament. And in the historic 2015 election, her National League for Democracy party won a majority of seats. Though barred by the constitution from becoming president, Suu Kyi became “state counselor” and de facto leader of the party.
Yet, she has been mostly silent on the plight of the Rohingya, refusing even to call them by that name (as the Myanmar government doesn’t recognize that as their official name). Her only concession to the fact that this is a serious problem was the establishment of a commission to look into the issues in Rakhine state. That commission delivered its report just two days before the violence broke out last month. Led by former United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan, the commission urged the government of Myanmar to recognize the rights of the Rohingya and warned that not doing so might only increase violence and radicalization in the state.
Certainly there is political pressure on Suu Kyi to keep quiet on the subject of the Rohingya; she’s trying to appease the Buddhist majority and the military officials still in government. But the violence that the Annan commission warned of has already begun. This is a time when Suu Kyi needs to rediscover her roots as a moral leader, to condemn massive, indiscriminate violence against the Rohingya and to work to make them citizens of Myanmar.
A group of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates called on her to do this months ago. In the last few days, Peace Prize laureate Malala Youfsafzai took to Twitter to condemn the “tragic and shameful treatment” of the Rohingya and noted that she was still waiting for her fellow Nobel laureate, Suu Kyi, to do the same:
“The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.”