Walkom: Suu Kyi’s Rohingya reaction tarnishes a respected image

Another idol bites the dust. The world had been told that Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a heroine of democracy and human rights. Now it turns out that her idea of human rights doesn’t include the roughly 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims living in Burma’s western state of Rakhine.

It seems she approves of Burmese military “clearance” operations that critics say amounts to ethnic cleansing.

In reprisal for insurgent attacks that killed 12 police officers, the army has reportedly set fire to Rohingya villages, causing about 125,000 Muslims to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Suu Kyi has dismissed Rohingyan complaints as fake news.

Indeed, as the BBC has reported, some of the social media pictures purporting to describe military atrocities have been faked. But the gist of the story is correct. Members of a persecuted minority in Burma are fleeing the country in terror.

And the woman lauded around the world for her commitment to human rights has virtually nothing to say.

Around the world, there are calls to revoke the Nobel Peace Prize awarded her in 1991. In Canada, there are calls to take back the honorary Canadian citizenship she was given in 2007.

How could we have been so wrong about her?

The answer, it seems, is that we weren’t paying attention. Suu Kyi is, by all accounts, a brave and determined person. She was under house arrest for 15 years. Her grace under pressure has earned her the nickname “the lady.”

But she is also a politician in a country where relations between nationalities are fraught.

Since it became independent from Britain in 1948, Burma has faced numerous and long-running national rebellions, most notably from the Karens and Kachins in the east.

Yet tensions are also high on Burma’s western border where the Buddhist Arakanese majority coexists uneasily with Muslim Rohingya.

Some Rohingya have been there for centuries. But during the period of British control, others were brought in as agricultural labourers from what is now Bangladesh.

After independence, and again in the 1970s, Muslim separatists in Rakhine staged brief insurgencies. They were squashed by the Burmese army.

The Rohingya remained second-class citizens. In 1982, Burma’s then-military government passed a law taking away even that. The Rohingya were declared non-citizens and, unless they could prove they’d been in Burma for three generations, were deprived of the right to vote.

In 2012, communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine led the Burmese army to, in effect, occupy Rohingya villages.

None of this seemed to particularly bother Suu Kyi. But, to be fair, it didn’t much bother anybody else. In 2012, Western governments were falling over one another to normalize relations with resource-rich Burma.

John Baird, then Canada’s foreign minister, trekked to Burma that year to lobby the government on behalf of Canadian firms. He also personally presented Suu Kyi with her honorary Canadian citizenship.

Publicly, neither said anything about the Rohingya.

In 2015, she and her National League for Democracy won elections and were allowed by the military to form a government. Suu Kyi didn’t campaign for Rohingya rights. But at least, unlike some members of her party, she didn’t campaign against them.

Now, as de facto leader of the elected government, she uses the military’s terminology. She refers to the Rohingya as Bangladeshi foreigners; she says the army’s so-called clearance operations are designed to fight terrorism.

She ignores the criticisms of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This June, she visited Ottawa and spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There is no indication that the plight of the Rohingya came up in their conversation.

Her reluctance to champion this particular group may stem in part from the fact that, in Burma, the army still remains a powerful force. Or it may stem from the fact that Rohingya Muslims are not popular among Burmese voters, the majority of whom are Buddhist. Or it may merely reflect her view of the world.

In any case, it is an expression of who she is. She has been consistent in her inconsistency.

So it seems a bit churlish to complain now about the honours she has been awarded.

Nobody asked Suu Kyi about her take on the Rohingya before she was awarded honorary Canadian citizenship. I expect that’s because no one wanted to know. Inconvenient facts interfere with mythmaking.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs reporter.

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