Aung San Suu Kyi, in 1997, once famously said—“please use your liberty to promote ours.” After having spent 15 years under house arrest, she later became the de-facto leader of Myanmar. She became the de-facto leader after having led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a majority win in Myanmar’s “first openly contested election in 25 years in November 2015. The win came five years to the day since she was released from 15 years of house arrest.” However, as the de-facto leader, she is now using her new found liberty to stifle the freedom of the Rohingya people and has become complicit in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has labeled as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Suu Kyi has become a hypocrite. She spent years peacefully fighting for her own freedom but now has stood by and supported the rape, displacement, and the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Rohingya people. Suu Kyi, despite encouraging many to rally for her release when she was under house arrest, has told the international community to stop clamoring about the atrocities against the Rohingya people. The fact that members of the international community are raising awareness of the atrocities is apparently, according to Aung San Suu Kyi, “makings things worse.”
On July 6th 1995, in Sri Lankan Parliament, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam supported a Private Members Motion calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who at the time had been serving her seventh year of detention without trial. The following are excerpts of the speech Dr. Tiruchelvam made in Parliament:
“In view of the strong historical and religious links between our respective countries, which have extended from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Sri Lanka and this House have special reasons to express concern with regard to developments in Myanmar. The Polonnaruwa Kings, Parakramabahu I and Vijayabahu I forged close political links with Burma, then known as Ramanna. These links were further consolidated by the close affinity between the Theravada Buddhist traditions in Burma and Ceylon. Vijayabahu I turned for assistance to Burma in reorganizing the Sangha in Ceylon.
These religious and cultural links have endured through the centuries and, most particularly, during Burma’s struggle for independence under the leadership of Aung San. This motion symbolizes continuing respect and affection of the people of Sri Lanka for the indomitable spirit and courage of the people of Burma, who have overcome many setbacks in their long and troubled history… In the struggle for human values, even the smallest initiative can create ripples that become waves that reach beyond the shores of our island.
The recent troubled chapter in Myanmar’s history commenced with the assumption of power by the Burmese army on September 18th 1988. General Saw Waung, the chief of staff of the armed forces, announced that the military had assumed power and abolished all civilian government institutions. The military established a 19-member military ruling body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). On the SLORC’s orders the armed forces forcibly crushed the pro-democracy demonstrations that had engulfed Burma in the previous months. In the days that followed, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people were shot and killed in the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere. Public demonstrations were banned, and there were mass arrests of students, political activists, opposition party members and Buddhist monks.
A second crackdown in July 1989 resulted in the detention of opposition leaders, including the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite the continuing political repercussion, the national election held on May 27th 1990 was a stunning victory for the political opposition to the SLROC’s rule. The NLD took 392 out of the 485 contested seats in the National Assembly versus only ten of the military backed National United Party. The results of this election are yet to be honored, and there has been no transfer of power to civilian rule”
Four days after Dr.Tiruchelvam gave his speech in Sri Lankan Parliament; Aung San Suu Kyi would be released from house arrest on July 10th 1995 only to be placed under house arrest again in 2000.
On November 13th 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest by the Burmese military. The subsequent election win of the NLD in 2015, and her appointment as the de-facto leader of the country, brought hope that Suu Kyi’s long championed values of democracy and human rights would begin to flourish within the country—especially for the nation’s most persecuted minority, Rohingyas. However, this was not to be the case.
Muslim minorities in Burma, in particular the 1.2 million ethnic Rohingya, have faced oppression by the State for decades. As asserted by Human Rights Watch, “The effective denial of citizenship for the Rohingya—who are not recognized on the official list of 135 ethnic groups eligible for full citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law—has facilitated enduring rights abuses, including restrictions on movement; limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; arbitrary arrests and detention; and forced labor. Travel is severely constrained by authorization requirements, security checkpoints, curfews, and strict control of IDP camp access. Such barriers compound the health crisis caused by poor living conditions, severe overcrowding, and limited health facilities.”
“Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya in Rakhine State have forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, as well as Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. During such crackdowns, refugees have often reported rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces.”
The recent resurgence of violence against the Rohingya people was triggered after nine border police were killed in October 2016, and troops started pouring into villages in Rakhine state. “The government blamed what it called fighters from an armed Rohingya group. The killings led to a security crackdown on villages where Rohingya lived. During the crackdown, government troops were accused of an array of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killing, rape and arson – allegations the government denied.”
Since the violence escalated, it is estimated that more than 400,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.
Although Aung San Suu Kyi does not have control over the actions of the military, she does have the ability to criticize and condemn the military’s actions against the Rohingya people. This is something Suu Kyi refuses to do. Suu Kyi even refuses to use the word “Rohingya” when talking about the persecuted minority group. Previously, she also lobbied the US government to not refer to the minority group as Rohingya.
When asked whether the atrocities against Rohingyas constitute ethnic cleansing, in a BBC interview, Suu Kyi said that the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was “too strong” a term to describe the situation in Rakhine. Suu Kyi deflected the accusation by asserting that there are also Buddhists who faced violence at the hands of Muslims. She was later angered that the BBC would even ask her such a question and was upset at the fact that the BBC journalist asking her the question was also a Muslim.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s current silence and complicity in the persecution of the Rohingya people is consistent with her approach to the persecuted community for years. During the November 2015 election, she avoided discussing violence in Rakhine and asserted that the media should not “exaggerate” the difficulties that the Rohingya people face.
Suu Kyi and her government opposed the UN fact finding mission from entering Myanmar to investigate the atrocities against the Rohingya people. Myanmar has also blocked all UN aid such as food, water, medicine aimed at helping thousands of Rohingya people who are victims of the ongoing crackdown by the military.
Most recently in September, due to international pressure mounted against her, Suu Kyi made a public address where she asserted that she condemned “all human rights violations” in Myanmar. However, she seriously downplayed the atrocities being waged against the Rohingya people, did not explicitly condemn the military’s role in the atrocities or even refer to the persecuted Muslim minority as Rohingya. As a snub to the mounting international criticism, Suu Kyi asserted that “Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny.” Suu Kyi also asserted, “We are concerned to hear that a number of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. We want to find out why this exodus is happening.”
It is quite obvious why the Rohingyas are fleeing; according to the testimony of Rohingyas on the ground, it is overwhelmingly in response to the escalating “militarized crackdown on neighborhoods where Rohingyas live” involving acts where the military has burned down villages, mosques, inflicted rape and torture against the population as well as restricted their movement. Foreign powers can play an integral role in halting the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the Rohingya people. However, in order to do so, the international community must put pressure on countries, namely, China, Russia, Israel, Ukraine, and India to stop funding the Myanmar military and those countries must place an arms embargo on Myanmar. Foreign powers must pressure the Myanmar government, in the many ways available, to allow humanitarian assistance to alleviate the conditions of the displaced Rohingya population in Myanmar.
Sri Lanka has a poor record with respect to human rights. However, a way for Sri Lanka to improve its standing globally with respect to human rights is to take in some refugees coming in from Myanmar. With the UN looming over Sri Lanka like a cloud, due to its human rights abuses during the final stages of the civil war, such an initiative might improve Sri Lanka’s human rights standing in the international arena.
However, Sri Lanka has persistently refused entry to Rohingya refugees. Most recently, in April, “the Sri Lankan coast guard detained 32 Rohingya Muslims who fled India by boat. The boat was detained in the Northern seas and was brought ashore to Kankesanthurai (KKS). There were seven women and 16 children below the age of nine, including a 15-day-old and four month old children on the boat.”
In addition, the Sri Lankan government can take a stand against the atrocities occurring in Myanmar by condemning the actions of Sri Lankan Buddhist extremists towards Rohingyas, like those belonging to the Sinhale API National Organization. The extremist organization recently held public demonstrations in the streets of Sri Lanka in support of the atrocities carried out by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya people. Most significantly, Sri Lanka has a responsibility, due to the historically poor treatment of its own ethnic minority communities, to take a stand against bigotry being espoused by Sinhala extremists towards Rohingyas.