Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s interview with the BBC during her visit to the UK, has shocked many of her admirers. Despite being repeatedly pressed to do so, she repeatedly avoided giving a clear unequivocal condemnation of the anti-Muslim violence that is engulfing Burma.
As a Muslim Rohingya and an advocate for human rights who spent many years campaigning for her freedom, it is hard to express the shock I felt at her words during this interview.
She started by dismissing reports of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority. On what basis does she make this denial? Despite repeated requests, in the 16 months since the violence against Muslims began in Rakhine State, she has not once visited the area. In contrast, Human Rights Watch has been to the areas where attacks took place, gathered evidence, and had experts in international law examine it. Their conclusion is that there is evidence of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Presented with such evidence, how can anyone who cares about human rights just dismiss this out of hand as she did?
Given the opportunity to clearly condemn attacks against Muslims, she repeatedly refused to do so. Instead she generalised by saying she condemned all violence and hatred. She has moral authority like no other person in Burma. When she speaks, people listen. If she strongly condemned attacks on Muslims it would make a difference. It could calm the situation. But she didn’t. Instead, she went beyond just trying to explain why the violence was taking place, and sounded like she was making excuses for it. First she did this by saying it was because Buddhists were also living in fear. How can this be true? Buddhists are by far the biggest majority in Burma. Secondly she talked about Buddhists also being subjected to violence and having to flee Burma. The overwhelming majority of violence has been Buddhists attacking Muslims, not the other way around. No Buddhists have fled Burma because of attacks by Muslims. They fled because of repression by the Buddhist led dictatorship. Even if there was real fear as she claims, that doesn’t justify people taking to the streets and burning alive their Muslim neighbours.
In the past 16 months alone, 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee to squalid temporary camps. This compares to less than five thousand Rakhine Buddhists who fled homes after tit-for-tat attacks when violence against Rohingya began in June last year. Why is Aung San Suu Kyi trying to portray this as two sides suffering equally, when the facts prove this is not the case?
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also started talking about global Muslim power, as if this is some kind of threat to Burma? To hear a Nobel Peace Prize winner talking in the same way about Islam as bigots and racists is very disappointing. There are conspiracy theories about a global Muslim conspiracy to take over Burma, but these kind of things are spread by crazy people on Facebook. It is not what you expect from a University educated leader of a democracy movement. Instead of dismissing these claims as the dangerous nonsense they are, she gave them credibility in the eyes of many Burmese.
When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was asked about the Monk Wirathu, who incites hatred and violence against Muslims, she also avoided criticising him, again just using generalisations saying she condemns hate of any kind. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in Burma.
Perhaps one of her most revealing comments was when she talking about Muslims integrating. She was not only talking about the Rohingya. She was talking about Muslims generally. How and why do people who are native to Burma, having lived there countless centuries, need to integrate? They are Burmese, and unlike most Rohingya Muslims, they have Burmese citizenship. Most have never even travelled abroad, and nor have any of their ancestors. But Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t seem to see them that way. She sees them as different and needing to integrate. Seeing as the only difference is their religion, does she share the common view among many Buddhists in Burma that Muslims are not real Burmese?
In the west admirers might be shocked and disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments, but in Burma the consequences are much more serious. Those who are inciting anti-Muslim hatred have taken great encouragement from her words, and we expect more violence against us. The United Nations has an opportunity to help by including the establishment of a commission of inquiry into this violence in the General Assembly resolution on Burma which they are currently drafting. This could establish the truth and make recommendations for action. We already knew the government won’t stop the violence, and it is now clear the democratic opposition won’t do anything either. If the UN also abandons us, we will be left without hope.