Seven years ago, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and daughter of Myanmar’s founder Aung Sun, was released after fifteen years of house arrest. As she walked out into the cheering crowd that stood outside her home in Rangoon, she was revived in the image of a saint; a physical embodiment of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy against the military dictatorship.
“There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk,” she said to the crowds.
On Friday the 3rd of February 2017, the United Nations released a report that accounted gruesome reports of rape, murder and torture against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. As one of the first in-depth reports on the ethnic violence between the Buddhist and Muslims communities in Rakhine state, this report provides unprecedented and conclusive evidence that crimes against humanity are being committed.
UN High Commissioner, Zeid Al Hassan, called upon the government to “halt these grave human rights violations against its own people, instead of continuing to deny they have occurred.” The violations, as detailed through interviews conducted with over 200 Muslim refugees who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, include the burning of houses, shops, mosques and schools – often locking the victims inside the buildings before doing so. Descriptions of children as young as eight months old being cut to death are scattered throughout the report, alongside equally horrific accounts of gang rape.
This spring of ethnic violence is similar in nature to the clashes that spurred the 2012 Rakhine State riots. The sectarian clashes, which resulted in 57 Muslim deaths and 31 Buddhist deaths, erupted after news that a Buddhist Rakhine woman had been raped and murdered by Rohingya Muslims. A series of attacks attempting to avenge the wrong blew up into larger scale communal violence. A state of emergency was then declared, leading the military to intervene, which only furthered the violence.
The increased scope of devastation against the Rohingyas since 2012 is both the result of increasing anxieties against Muslim communities, as well as “systematic discrimination and policies of exclusion” which have a deep historical legacy in Burma.
The state of Rakhine in Myanmar is ethnically divided, with the Rohingya Muslims comprising the majority of the northern region and the Buddhist Rakhines comprising the majority of the southern region. Consequently, in Rakhine, Buddhist fears of soon becoming an ethnic minority in the state have engendered Muslim persecution. This emergence of Buddhist nationalist sentiments, whereby the Rohingyas are the necessary other, has manifested in the call for their expulsion. While Aung Sun remains firm to the claim that these incidents do not constitute ethnic cleansing, videos have emerged of people chanting “kill and shoot the Rohingyas.”
The Rohingyas were not accepted as citizens as early as 1948, when Myanmar gained independence from the British. Rohingyan claims that they were natives of the land were met with the suspicion that they were actually Bangladeshi immigrants. In the 1940s, during the Pakistan Movement, the Rohingya in the West of Burma formed a movement that supported annexation to the new “nation for Muslims” being spearheaded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. However, Jinnah rejected them, claiming that he would not intervene in Burmese issues, regardless of their religious affinity. Historical confusion on the origins of the Rohingya people has thus coupled with growing anxiety against Islam to spur acts of violence.
Of the over 1 million Rohingyas living in Myanmar now, 120,000 have been displaced into internment camps and an estimated 65,000 have fled to Bangladesh on boats. Bangladesh, too, has been reluctant in accepting them. In fact, Bangladesh has been harshly criticized for a plan it published in 2015 that wanted to relocate old and new refugees to Thengar Char; an island renowned for its high susceptibility to extreme flooding. Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, has been vocal about its support for the Rohingya population and its criticism of the Burmese government.
Aung Sun Suu Kyi has hardly grasped political control in the nation. The foreign status of her husband and children prevents her from running for the seat of President, and thus her power resides in her position of Foreign Minister and State Councillor. Outright support for the Muslim population would lose her a large majority of political support.
The information of the recent UN report has provoked increasing international criticism against Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s inaction. Her resistance to take a stand on the issue, reconcile the communities, or even improve the situation of over 120,000 Muslim refugees in internment camps is the dawn of a dark shadow on a saintly aura. Aung Sun’s campaign for the production of democracy and the rule of law are arguably being destabilized by an increasing awareness of the oppression that she has seemingly turned a blind eye to. In the time of violence, she has chosen to be quiet.