How Aung San Suu Kyi and her U.S. Allies Deny Burmese Anti-Muslim Atrocities

News & Politics

Burmese Nobel Laureate and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly lost her composure when questioned about the dire conditions of Muslims in her country during a BBC interview two years ago. When pressed by BBC personality Mishal Hussain, a Muslim, Suu Kyi expressed her displeasure in an off-the-record remark, allegedly complaining, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim!”

The disclosure was made in a new book about Suu Kyi, leader of the current ruling party National League For Democracy (NLD), titled The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom, by British author Peter Popham. In the same BBC interview with Hussain, Suu Kyi denied any evidence of genocide of the Burmese Muslim group Rohingya. She equated their suffering with Burmese Buddhist residents who are over 90% of the population, whereas Muslims only comprise 4%.

Recognized as a hero in the west for her struggle for democracy, Suu Kyi has been lambasted by critics for her lackluster response to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and persecution of Muslims in Burma.

The plight of the Rohingya became a serious but temporary news fixture in 2012 when violence broke out in the state of Rakhine, next to the Bangladeshi border. The ensuing violence led to approximately 125,000 Muslims, including Rohingya, to be displaced from their homes.

A damning 2013 report by Human Rights Watch titled "All You Can Do Is Pray": Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State highlighted the grave atrocities committed in 2012. “The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s Asia director.

A group of radical Buddhist monks have led the charge against the Rohingya and Burmese Muslims in general. Infamous monk Ashin Wirathu has led protests against Muslims, especially the Rohingya, in the Arakan state. Dubbed the Buddhist bin Laden, Wirathu has accused Burmese Muslims of establishing an Islamist state in Burma and has urged the Burmese people to avoid Muslim-run businesses.

Burmese government officials have helped spur on the actions of nationalist monks like Wirathu. After the violence in 2012, former Burmese president Thein Shein suggested that the Rohingya be deported from Burma. Last year, his administration passed severely restrictive religious laws that were certain to discriminate against the Burmese Muslim population, an overture Wirathu and his ilk fully supported.

As the government continues to isolate its most vulnerable minority, many Rohingya have tried to escape the country. Horrendous stories of Rohingya people fleeing in boats while being killed or stranded at sea has left international observers in a state of alarm. The official government policy has been to put anyone seen escaping into refugee camps. Currently over 100,000 people, many of them Rohingya, are said to be languishing in these filthy camps. 

As the crisis rages on, Suu Kyi’s indifference and apparent lack of concern has been notable. Maung Zarni, a former visiting fellow at Oxford and Harvard and founder-director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), spoke to AlterNet on the subject. Zarni who is the co-author of a paper titled The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar's Rohingyas, characterized Suu Kyi’s false equivalency between Buddhists and Muslims as “deeply ignorant."

“It is utterly pathetic for anyone to create this moral parity in terms of the scale of the sufferings experienced by the Buddhist Rakhine, who outnumber the Rohingya by three to one, and the sufferings experienced by the Rohingya,” Zarni told AlterNet. “It would be like assigning the same moral responsibility to the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he added.

Zarni was wary of the term "ethnic cleansing," being used to describe the situation of the Rohingya. Genocide and crimes against humanity are the better suited terms, he said. He said his own work and that of Yale and Queen Mary university, all multiyear studies published within the last two years, have arrived at the same conclusion—that a slow but sure genocide of the Rohignya people is taking place.

Suu Kyi’s muteness on Rohingya and Muslim persecution is a product of both “election calculus” and “personal racism,” Zarni told AlterNet.

Zarni asserted that he had discussed Suu Kyi’s racism, which he says “incidentally pervades Burmese society at all levels," much earlier than the recent revelations in Popham’s book, which he says is simply “a publicity ploy” rather a genuine concern for the Rohingya people.

For Zarni, what is far more revealing is how Suu Kyi has conducted her party affairs, such as the NLD refusing to field any Muslim candidates in the most recent elections.

“According to some of her closest advisers in the NLD, ASSK was 100% responsible for cleansing the entire party of all Muslim MP candidates,” Zarni told AlterNet. “Even her deputy chair and co-founder ex-general Tin Oo was amenable to the proposal by the junior colleagues to field at least two very qualified NLD members of Islamic background in the 2015 elections last November.” 

Furthermore, he added, “Today, NLD becomes the first political organization with no single Muslim representation in Burma's recorded political history. The past pre-colonial feudal rulers and all the anti-colonial nationalist political resistance movements had allowed participation and representation by Muslims in the country.”  

“Even the most repressive Burmese military's political front would allow token Muslim participation. Aung San Suu Kyi would not even adopt token representation. That's the depth of her anti-Muslim racism,” Zarni asserted.

Zarni believes that with her actions Suu Kyi is “setting an extremely dangerous precedent and emerging as a toxic role model,” especially since “the masses in Burma kiss the ground she walks on.”  

He said that “anti-Muslim racism is not just the exclusive world view of the largely ignorant electorate who grew up in ignorance about Islam, but has infested even the most elite circles of western educated Burmese. Aung San Suu Kyi is only the most famous—now infamous—one.”

Hailed as a champion for freedom and democracy in the west, criticism of Suu Kyi's actions from American and European leaders has largely been muted. Current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton praised the November elections in Burma as historic, while claiming part credit in convincing the former Burmese general to make a democratic transition.

"When I was Secretary of State, President Obama and I worked with Aung San Suu Kyi and others on the ground in Burma to nurture flickers of progress into a real opening," Clinton said in a statement, in the aftermath of the elections that Suu Kyi’s party won.

The fact that Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims were barred by Suu Kyi from contesting in the NLD was glossed over.

Zarni singled out Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the UN, as being particularly culpable in ignoring the ongoing atrocities. He said that while Power may have written a book criticizing U.S. inaction in ending genocides around the world, in her current role as UN ambassador and one of Obama’s closest aides, she hasn’t raised any alarms.

Since 2012, when the Rohingya crisis first made global headlines, the situation of the ethnic group has gone from bad to worse. While Burma’s transition to democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi are globally celebrated, the discrimination against Burmese Muslims is hardly paid lip service.

When asked if a future President Clinton could turn things around, Maung Zarni does not mince words: ​“Hillary Clinton is one of the most unprincipled and uncaring politicians," he charged. "You can expect virtually nothing progressive or emancipatory from her, if you are a part of what Fanon called the 'wretched of the Earth,' the oppressed. She is for herself and for the Wall Street that pays her.”

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