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Aung San Suu Kyi's Dilemma - Isham Jalil #Rohingya

1. Last Thursday on 1 December 2016, the de facto leader of Myanmar government, Aung San Suu Kyi dismissed the mass killings of Rohingya in Myanmar as mere fabrications. In a dialog session in Singapore, she chuckled when asked about the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar. This should not come as a surprise. A year ago in November 2015, she and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the Myanmar general election after years of fighting against the ruling military regime. To win the election, she spent years courting the Myanmar Buddhist voters who consist of ninety percent majority voters in the country.

2. Aung San Suu Kyi’s reaction to the recent Rohingya’s persecution above came despite the fact that many Rohingya had joined and volunteered in the campaign for her party the NLD in the last general election against the ruling military regime which had been known to be anti-Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya had the same motivation, to change the oppressive military regime. But the Rohingya’s support for Aung San Suu Kyi had actually counted for nothing. Worse, it had actually hurt her chance to win the majority Buddhist votes hence the election.

3. Anti-Rohingya and Islamophobia sentiment is widely spread among the Myanmar people exacerbated by Buddhist extremist groups such as the one called “969”. This group headed by a Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu spreads false fear campaign that Muslims are overrunning the country to install Sharia Law and leave Buddhists a minority. Previously, some anti-Rohingya groups have even tried to depict Aung San Suu Kyi as “Muslim lover” that had apparently costed her some Buddhist voters’ support in the past. This has put political pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to further distance herself from the Rohingya’s plight. She probably knows that expressing support to Rohingya now could cost her and her party millions of supports from her voter base.

4. The Rohingya consist of only one to two percent of Myanmar residents, they can’t vote and they are not even considered citizens. This is due to the repressive 1982 Citizenship Law that hinders Rohingya people from becoming citizens of Myanmar. This makes them ignorable, dispensable, and vulnerable to attacks and persecution. They have no formal or organized representation in Myanmar to fight for them.

5. When Aung San Suu Kyi won the election in November last year, the Rohingya probably thought things were finally going to change for them. Aung San Suu Kyi, or “The Lady” as she is popularly known in Myanmar, would surely fight for them, or at least for human rights, and against persecution, and so they thought. She is the Nobel Peace Prize winner after all. But they were wrong.

6. Aung San Suu Kyi needed to win the election, now she needs to hold on to power. She didn’t need the Rohingya before, she does not need them now. Now, after the general election, she needs to consolidate support from the Buddhist majority voters and the military. Political expediency necessitates her to put politics above moral principles. Deep down she is a moral person. However, perhaps she dares not displease 90% of her voter base. Aung San Suu Kyi is in a dilemma. If she fights for the Rohingya, she will be on the square with her moral principles, but she will lose many of her supporters and risk a potential coup d’etat by the military. If she doesn’t, she will keep her political power base but she will lose her moral principles. This is perhaps why on the Rohingya issue she said she won’t take sides.

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7. What happens in Myanmar closely affected its ASEAN neighbours. The recent “Clearance Operation” by the military in Myanmar denied by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government as “ethnic cleansing” will cause tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee to its neighbouring countries including Malaysia and Indonesia. Thousands of Rohingya including women and children have died at sea trying to flee from Myanmar to safety. Thousands more will die trying to get there.

8. But it is not the outcome of the flood of refugees to our shore that concerns us most, it is its cause which is the mass killing of targeted ethnic group including innocent women and children that gives us the visceral abhorrence. And it is the disproportionate retaliation of heavily armed government soldiers with helicopter gunships against the alleged minority criminals armed with wooden clubs, knives and spears that turn our stomach. If we do nothing and say nothing against this rape and raid on moral and humanitarian principles, we condone the blatant atrocity with impunity done on our fellow human beings. Mass killing with impunity brutalizes society and sets the new norm for the world that we live in. We shall not accept or turn a blind eye on this lest we can never look ourselves in the mirror with respect and content.

9. Malaysians are deeply concerned by the human right violation particularly involving extra-judicial mass killings around the world and in Myanmar and they are not afraid to voice it out. The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib and the Malaysian people have voiced out concern before on similar humanitarian issue for example with what has happened in Palestine, and now they are not afraid to voice out their concern again with what is happening closer to home in Myanmar.

10. A few days ago the spokesperson for the Myanmar President’s Office, Zaw Htay warned Prime Minister Najib and the Malaysian people not to interfere in Myanmar’s affair citing non-intervention principle in international relations. Earlier, Mr. Htay refuted a report by Human Rights Watch that states 430 buildings including homes and mosques in Rohingya villages were burned and hundreds of Rohingya people were killed by the Myanmar army soldiers in the last few weeks in Rakhine. In the face of the incredulous denial, Mr. Htay later said the actual number of buildings burned was actually 155, as if the lesser number would make it less morally wrong or more legally acceptable.

11. Recently, Human Right Watch has released satellite images showing proof that 1,200 homes had been razed in Rohingya villages over the last several weeks further contradicting Mr. Htay’s statement. In the last 6 weeks, hundreds of Rohingya have been killed, many burned. Both Mr. Htay and Aung San Suu Kyi seem to have grossly understated the situation on Rohingya people in the Myanmar’s state of Rakhine.

12. Last Sunday, the Malaysians’ concern on Rohingya’s persecution manifested into a rally in Kuala Lumpur attended by tens of thousands of Malaysians led by the Prime Minister himself. Contrary to Mr. Htay’s statement, voicing out concern in domestic protest is actually hardly an international interference or intervention. It is perhaps the least that should be done given what has happened. People have the right to voice concern over what is happening in their neighbouring country that affects them. If this voicing of concern still does not work, perhaps actual intervention by the international community is justified.

13. Mass extra-judicial killing of targeted ethnic group is murder, it is textbook genocide. It is legally and morally wrong. Mr. Htay should not hide behind non-intervention argument of international law to conceal the atrocity and killing of targeted minority group. He should not abuse the international non-intervention pact to effectively attempt to issue a gag order to neighbouring countries for speaking up against mass murder or genocide. And Aung San Suu Kyi should neither evade and shirk responsibility from addressing this concern nor most intolerably put political expediency above moral principles. After all she is the Nobel Peace Prize winner and the current de factor leader of Myanmar government. Maybe she could not have done anything before when she was not in power, but she can now, now that she is in power, and the whole world is watching. It is never too late to do the right thing.

The writer is the President of Malaysian Volunteers. He has years of experience in public service and a master’s degree in politics, economics and law from Harvard University.

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