By Raj Gonsalkorale –
One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter – Dhammapada, Verse 131
The silence of the Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on the Rohingya crisis has been deafening, to say the least. While the very unBuddhistic attitude of Buddhist Monks and lay Buddhists which accounts for about 90% of the Myanmar population is perplexing and shameful, the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi is unpardonable.
The political imperatives she faces maybe understood as she could easily meet with an “accident” if she defies the Military on this issue, and she would be reviled by her own majority Buddhist population led by the leading Buddhist Monk activist Ashin Wirathu if she showed any sympathy towards the Rohingya people.
However, in keeping with her fight for human rights throughout her life and for which she has been awarded more peace prizes than any other leader in the world, what she could have done, placating both powerful political arms of Myanmar, would have been to show sympathy to the Rohingya people as human beings and worked with the UN, the Bangladeshi government and other sympathetic governments to make the life of these miserable Rohingya people at least more human.
If allowing the activist Buddhist Monks who are anything but Buddhist as per Buddha’s teachings, and the Military, of course known more for their inhumane qualities than not, to treat these human beings as dispensable objects, is a measure of political survival, one might rightly say it is not worth surviving in order to satisfy a lot who have now brought disgrace and disdain upon Aung San Suu Kyi.
She should have spoken for the inhumaneness of the way the Rohingya people were treated, rather than defend a majority and the Military might that do not deserve to be defended. She is an astute and well experienced person who could have treaded the difficult path by speaking out on the human crisis leaving the political aspect of it aside for discussion and debate at a later time.
If past history of Bangladesh is to be recounted, Islam made its first appearance in the Bengal region during the 7th century AD through Arab Muslim traders and Sufi missionaries. The subsequent Muslim conquest of Bengal in the 12th century led to the establishment of Islam across the region. Beginning in 1202, Muslim rule was ushered throughout Bengal.
Previous dynasties in modern day Bangladesh had been of Hindu and Buddhist origins and there is a fear, for whatever reason, that the presence of Rohingya people who are Moslems and therefore linked to the good and the bad of the rest of the Muslim world, are a threat to Buddhism and the Buddhist population of Myanmar. This is a political issue that needs addressing and it should not be mixed with the human tragedy that has befallen some human beings simply because of their ethnicity and religion.
Aung San Suu Kyi should have defended the right of human beings to be treated as human beings in her own country.
The question being asked now by all those institutions that awarded her peace prizes and many other human rights activists is how such an iconic figure of human rights be so reticent when it comes to defending the human rights of an ethnic minority from her own country.
No doubt the politics in Rakhine State is complex and not well understood by outsiders and Aung Sun Suu Kyi probably feared that her positioning on this could have further fuelled tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya, who make up about a third of the population of Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh.
Extremist movements such as 969, which is driven by Ashin Wirathu, and Ma Ba Tha – the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion – present themselves as defenders of the country’s interests and its Bamar majority against foreign influence in Myanmar.
While insisting that he is against violence, Ashin Wirathu and those like him have fuelled and exploited tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, promoting the belief that Islam is penetrating the country to install sharia law and leave Buddhists as a minority.
To make matters very difficult for Aung San Suu Kyi, some nationalists have begun smearing her by depicting her as “the Muslim lover”.
In a country that is 90% Buddhist there is little sympathy to be found for the Rohingya cause, and expressing support could be suicidal politically for Aung San Suu Kyi as the military could easily replace her and install a puppet civilian leader if she loses the support of the Buddhist majority. The reform processes going on in the country could suffer a major setback were this to happen. Many analysts seem to believe that powerful people in the Military with close links to radical monks are deliberately stirring up tensions between communities in an attempt to disrupt on going political reforms.
There is no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi has to balance the strategies related to political reforms for which she fought throughout her adult life, with ground realities in the Rakhine State and more broadly within Myanmar, and also the voices of despair and disappointment emanating from many parts of the world. This needs to be understood before pre judging her.
However, in the judgement of many, her silence on the human tragedy in Rakhine on people who did not chose to be Muslims or Islamists or Rakhine people or Bangladeshi’s when they were born, and the violation of all their basic norms of human rights, cannot be condoned.