Suu Kyi has to do more for Rohingya

A beloved Nobel Peace Prize winner is presiding over an ethnic cleansing in which villages are burned, women raped and children butchered.

For the last three weeks, Buddhist-majority Myanmar has systematically slaughtered civilians belonging to the Rohingya Muslim minority, forcing 270,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh - with Myanmar soldiers shooting at them even as they cross the border.

"The Buddhists are killing us with bullets," Ms Noor Symon, a woman carrying her son, told a New York Times reporter. "They burned houses and tried to shoot us."

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the widow who defied Myanmar's dictators, endured a total of 15 years of house arrest and led a campaign for democracy, was a hero of modern times. Yet today, Ms Suu Kyi, as the effective leader of Myanmar, is chief apologist for this ethnic cleansing as the country oppresses the darker-skinned Rohingya, and denounces them as terrorists and illegal immigrants.

And "ethnic cleansing" may be an understatement. Even before the latest wave of terror, a Yale study had suggested that the brutality towards the Rohingya might qualify as genocide. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has also warned that a genocide against the Rohingya may be looming.

For shame, Ms Suu Kyi. We honoured you and fought for your freedom - and now you use that freedom to condone the butchery of your own people? "They're killing children," Mr Matthew Smith, chief executive of a human rights group called Fortify Rights, told me after interviewing refugees on the Bangladesh border. "In the least, we're talking about crimes against humanity," he said.

One Rohingya survivor told Mr Smith: "My two nephews - their heads were cut off. One was six years old and the other was nine."

Ms Hannah Beech, a colleague who has provided outstanding coverage from the border, put it this way: "I've covered refugee crises before, and this was, by far, the worst thing that I've ever seen."

It's not that Ms Suu Kyi is organising the killings (she does not control the military), or that they are entirely one-sided. The latest slaughter began after Rohingya militants attacked police stations and a military base on Aug 25. The Myanmar security forces responded with scorched-earth fury against Rohingya civilians.

Hundreds are believed to have been killed, but Ms Suu Kyi has not criticised the slaughter. Rather, she blamed international aid groups and complained about "a huge iceberg of misinformation" aiming to help "the terrorists" - presumably meaning the Rohingya.

When a Rohingya woman bravely recounted how her husband had been shot dead, and how she and three teenage girls had been gang-raped by soldiers, Ms Suu Kyi's Facebook page mocked the claims as "fake rape".

Based on a conversation with Ms Suu Kyi once about the Rohingya, I think she genuinely believes that they are outsiders and troublemakers. But in addition, the moral giant has become a pragmatic politician - and she knows that any sympathy for the Rohingya would be disastrous politically for her party in a country deeply hostile to its Muslim minority.

"We applauded Aung San Suu Kyi when she received her Nobel Prize because she symbolised courage in the face of tyranny," noted Mr Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Now that she's in power, she symbolises cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya."

Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a pained letter to his friend: "My dear sister, if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep."

Myanmar tries to keep foreigners out of the Rohingya areas, but I've managed to get there twice in the last few years, and, even then, Rohingya were confined to concentration camps or to remote villages. Many were systematically denied medical care, and children were barred from public schools. It's a 21st-century apartheid.

I saw a 23-year-old woman, Ms Minura Begum, lose her baby because she needed a doctor. I met a brilliant 15-year-old girl whose dream of becoming a doctor is collapsing because she is confined to a concentration camp. I met a two-year-old boy, Hirol, who was starving after his mother died for lack of medical care.

Ms Suu Kyi and other Myanmar officials refuse to use the word "Rohingya", seeing them as just illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, but that's absurd. A document from 1799 shows that even then, the Rohingya population was well established.

In Washington, Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin have introduced a bipartisan resolution condemning the violence and calling on Ms Suu Kyi to work to halt it. I hope United States President Donald Trump speaks up as well.

We know that the Myanmar government responds to pressure, because that's what won Ms Suu Kyi her freedom. Yet, there has been far too little outcry for the Rohingya. Bravo to Pope Francis for being an exception among world leaders and speaking up for them. A basic lesson of history: Ignoring a possible genocide only encourages the persecutors.

There are petitions online calling for Ms Suu Kyi to be stripped of her Nobel. In fact, there is no mechanism to take away the prize, but I do wish that the prize money could be recovered and go to feed the widows and orphans being created on her watch.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Suu Kyi has to do more for Rohingya'. Print Edition | Subscribe