What is Aung San Suu Kyi doing about the Rohingya?
By Zan Azlee
ONE Southeast Asian issue that gets a lot of news coverage is the issue of Burma’s (Myanmar) Rohingya, a group that is oppressed and who have had their citizenship stripped off since 1982, by the former military junta.
The exodus of this people for decades has now seen tremendously negative implications. Refugees, corruption, human trafficking, the sex trade, murder, rape and torture are all associated with this problem.
One of the on-going criticism in the region is about ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the regional intergovernmental organisation, having a non-interference policy. Hence, they have not done anything about the Rohingya issue in Burma.
Readers who are unfamiliar with the Rohingya issue are urged to find out more. However, it would definitely be hard pressed to find any individual today who would have no knowledge of the issue at all.
Coincidentally, over the weekend, I attended the launch of a documentary film called ‘Bodies for Sale’ by Mahi Ramakrishnan, a journalist friend of mine who has been covering the Rohingya issue for years. The film, of course, was about the Rohingya exodus.
A question that was posed (by me!) after the screening is whether Aung San Suu Kyi, ever indicated that she was sympathetic with the plight of the Rohingya before her party, the National League of Democracy (MLD), took office.
Much has been said about Suu Kyi in the past year since she is now leading the country, and none of it has been positive. This is probably something the Nobel Peace Prize laureate isn’t used to.
Seen as a symbol of liberation and democracy, she is being accused of the total opposite now that her party, the NLD, has taken over the government in Burma. She is the country’s first democratically elected leader since 1962.
Suu Kyi had gone through tremendous sacrifice and suffering for her country. The whole world should be familiar with her house arrests over a span of 21 years. So she rightfully deserved the Nobel Peace Prize when she got it.
But back to the negative criticism that has been, surprisingly respectful and polite, thrown at her in the past few weeks. Suu Kyi has been criticised for being silent and not taking action about the Rohingya issue that has been afflicting Burma all these years.
In fact, she has been reported to have advised the United States ambassador to Burma earlier this year not to refer to the term Rohingya to describe to the persecuted Muslim community.
A Myanmar government spokesman, U Kyaw Zay Ya, said that the government only recognises 135 ethnic groups within it’s borders and Rohingya is not one of them.
“Our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems,” he was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
In 2013, I was in Burma shooting a documentary about how the military junta was slowly opening up the country to the world. I had long discussions with Khein Thurein, my fixer and local Burmese journalist, about Aung San Suu Kyi.
Thurein had told me that in Burma itself, she had always been criticised for not thinking of Burma as a whole country with a diverse society. One of the main criticisms was that she always only referred to ‘the Burmese people’ in her speeches and her writings.
According to Thurein, this angered the people because the Burmese are a specific ethnic group and whenever she used this term, it alienated the rest of the society.
Maybe, Aung San Suu Kyi is just a politician and she is playing to the political strategy that she has set out for herself and her party in order to gain and stay in power. She did say in an interview with CNN that she is first and foremost a politician and not a humanitarian worker.
This could just be a case where the whole world has projected a saint-like image of Suu Kyi that probably isn’t exactly accurate. Over the years, the international community has made her out to be the saviour of everything that it might not even be in line with her own plans.
Apparently, the NLD is quite an authoritarian party with it’s leader running it with sole control. But of course, the NLD government is only a year old and it might just be a little premature for us to judge them. And let’s hope that the illusion that is Suu Kyi does not fade.
Or maybe it already has.
[This article was written for and originally published at AsianCorrespondent.com]