Rohingya Violence Tests Myanmar Leader’s Credentials

Rohingya people flee the violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Photo: AP

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was once seen as a paragon of liberty, and an iconic rebel who stoutly fought against a military junta that was in place for decades. She was a swaggering figure whose very name was associated with the battle for democracy through non-violent methods, a factor that earned her an acclaimed place in the West, avowed followers around the world and a Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel award sealed her reputation as a symbol for oppressed people of the Third World. It was a soaring monument to her status as a freedom fighter. But that hard-won reputation now appears to be in jeopardy.

Ms. Kyi’s stance in the face of Myanmar army’s scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya Muslims opened her democratic credentials into rigorous questioning.

The number of people fleeing the violence in Myanmar’s conflict-riven Rakhine State has now passed 160,000. The international community is increasingly troubled by the emerging of gruesome images of burnt villages, razed homes and gory tales of violence.

In the face of such atrocities, Myanmar’s de facto leader Ms. Kyi placed the blame on “terrorists” for misinforming the world. She defended her handling of the conflict and dismissed international criticism.

In her first remarks since the outbreak of latest bout of violence, the Nobel laureate spoke to Asian News International based in New Delhi. She said it is unreasonable to expect a solution to the issue in 18 months. “The situation in Rakhine has been such since many decades. It goes back to pre-colonial times.”

The crisis worsens by every single day. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week called for de-escalation of the situation. He raised the specter of a possible ethnic-cleansing and warned Myanmar that the “violence could destabilize the entire region.”

On Wednesday, Bangladesh protested Myanmar over the huge exodus of civilians pouring across its border. It also relayed its concerns over reports that Myanmar army is planting land mines across the border to block returning of Rohingya. There are several fatal reports of mine explosions.

The Bangladesh Foreign Ministry “demanded immediate measures from Myanmar to de-escalate the ongoing violence.”

In comments to Reuters, a spokesman for Ms. Kyi refused claims and said mines could well have been placed by “terrorists” themselves.

Ms. Kyi also emerged skeptical of media reports. In one incident, she criticized Turkey’s deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek for posting “fake photographs” on Twitter, purportedly showing dead Rohingya in Myanmar during the last week’s violence.

“That kind of fake information … was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists,” a statement on behalf of Ms. Kyi said on Facebook.

Her characterization of the unfolding crisis in Rakhine State spurred a growing body of international calls to take Nobel prize back from her.

But what shields her from a concrete action in such direction is the entrenched Western approach portraying her a lone politician navigating in an unfavorable political landscape given the outsized sway of the Myanmar military.

“Western governments, in particular, have not been the critical friends to Aung San Suu Kyi that they should have been in recent years,” Mandy Sadan, Reader in the History of South East Asia, SOAS, University of London, told The Globe Post.”

“This also reflects political myopia that characterized some sectors of the pro-democracy lobby during her years of house arrest, and the nature of the elite friendship groups that Daw Suu had as a result of her close links with the British establishment,” she said.

According to her, “their frames of reference were narrow and focused upon the personality and iconic status of ‘The Lady’ herself.”

The legendary figure of Ms. Kyi fails to capture the essence of the problems that have enveloped Myanmar today.

The West “did not try to understand the longstanding and deep seated problems of xenophobia, Islamophobia and Burmese chauvinism that were the dark undercurrents of Burmese society within and beyond the military; they could not see these issues as central to political reform rather than secondary,” Ms. Sadan said.

For her, the problem is far deeper and rooted in many layers of the society. She argued that the deep negative sentiment against Rohingya goes beyond Burmese people, and it is not a Burman prejudice entirely.

She noted that many Burmese and non-Burmese people fail to stand up for the Rohingya people even though “they are themselves also victims of the same structural violence created by the military state,” but refuse to be linked with the Rohingya experience.