A Nobel Peace Prize winner once hailed as her country’s Nelson Mandela has stood by as ethnically motivated violence and mass atrocities tear apart her country.
Democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 (out of 21) years under military house arrest in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Largely locked away for chunks of time from the end of the 1990s through the early years of this century, she earned a global reputation for quiet strength in the face of a brutal military junta. Suu Kyi refused to leave her country, even though it meant forgoing a life with her sons and husband, who lived overseas.
That stoicism won her comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. She became something of a pop culture icon as well. U2’s Bono wrote a song dedicated to her; her cause was championed by film stars like Julia Roberts and Kevin Spacey. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 — but received it in person only in 2012, after her release in 2010. Her party swept elections in a landslide victory in 2015, making her the de facto civilian leader of her country.
Now her reputation is rapidly disintegrating because of her refusal to speak out about — or take meaningful steps to prevent — the military crackdown targeting the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 300,000 Rohingya refugees have streamed across the border to Bangladesh over the past two weeks alone, running from what appears to be a crackdown on their villages by the military that still controls crucial aspects of Burma’s government, including the state security apparatus.
On Monday Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, the United Nation’s High Commissioner on Human Rights told that body’s Human Rights Council in Geneva this was a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
“I call on the government to end its current cruel military operation, with accountability for all violations that have occurred, and to reverse the pattern of severe and widespread discrimination against the Rohingya population,” al-Hussein said.
The Dalai Lama has also begged for an end to the violence. “Buddha (would have) definitely helped those poor Muslims,” he said this weekend, “So, still I feel that (it's) so very sad ... so sad." And on Friday Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another Nobel laureate, implored Suu Kyi to break her silence.
It is the second such major wave of violence in the past 12 months. The Rohingya who cross the border come with stories of indiscriminate killings and mass rape, and of villages burned to the ground and unrelenting persecution — all at the hands of the Burmese military. Their testimony only reaches the world through escapees; international aid groups and the United Nations are denied access to Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. The press has little to no access too; the stories told by the press are brought by those who have crossed over.
This latest violence came from violence: The Rohingya have a small armed faction that attacked police stations on August 25; some reports claim 110 died in the raids, including 12 police officers. But the indiscriminate and brutal response by the military has been widely criticized by the international community as radically disproportionate and approaching genocidal.
And yet Suu Kyi has said, and done, almost nothing. Suu Kyi has been largely silent in the face of violence. Suu Kyi’s sole public statement about the blanket repression of the Rohingya has been a Donald Trump-style denial.
In a telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, she blamed fake news, and misinformation. (A Turkish government minister had apparently tweeted about the disaster, but used images from other crises.)
“That kind of fake information which was inflicted on the deputy prime minister was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation,” Suu Kyi’s office said in a statement, “calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.”
While some of the images disseminated on social media were false, the crisis is all too real — and is sparking growing concern around the world.
“The authorities in Myanmar must take determined action to put an end to this vicious cycle of violence and provide security and assistance to all those in need," UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement on Tuesday.
Guterres underscored that the situation "risks degenerating into a humanitarian catastrophe with implications for peace and security that could continue to expand beyond Myanmar's borders."
Though Suu Kyi does not hold legal sway over the military’s treatment of the Muslim minority, a statement from her that explicitly condemns sectarian violence and repression would go far. “It is the military that has control of power in very, very key parts of the state,” Olof Blomqvist, a researcher with Amnesty International in London, told me on Tuesday.
“That’s not to absolve Suu Kyi of responsibility — she has a political and moral responsibility to speak out to stem this violence,” he added. “She hasn’t and that is hugely disappointing.”
Some feel that it is worse than disappointing. There is even a Change.org petition lobbying for her to lose her Peace prize; a sentiment echoed in a Guardian op-ed by George Monbiot and
This is in part because it’s not the first time she has failed to acknowledge an unfolding crackdown against a group that the UN has called the “world’s most persecuted minority.” In an April interview with the BBC, she explicitly insisted the actions against the Rohingya were not ethnic cleansing. And back in October, she seemed dismissive of the issue when she told a press conference “show me a country without human rights issues.” She has consistently seemed reluctant to criticize the military’s actions.