America Has Been Silent on a Human Rights Tragedy

In Myanmar today, the thugs have won. Any moral leadership we thought Aung San Suu Kyi possessed has been badly damaged. Her former supporters have made a vocal call for her to give back her Nobel Peace Prize. The word "genocide" is now used, with some justification, for the brutal treatment of the Rohingya people at the hands of the Burmese military. Expelling the Rohingya from Myanmar has been supported by nationalist, Buddhist monks who wield political power despite vows of compassion and renunciation and is further enabled by weak leadership in the National League.

The Rohingya fled to Bangladesh as fast as they could after they were raped or beaten or caught in their own houses set ablaze by Burmese soldiers. Presently and slowly, Myanmar and Bangladesh have worked out a plan for those who can prove their bona fides, offering a return to Myanmar to the displaced. It seems a false choice given so many villages have been razed and the Rohingya who do remain in Myanmar are being systematically rendered into second-class citizens, deprived of education, the right to vote and even basic government-issued identification documents.

The American response has been muted to say the least. The lack of words and actions from the White House and Ambassador Haley at the United Nations has been appalling. The absence of any official American censure of the violence in Myanmar may come as no surprise because the Rohingya are predominantly Muslim. Our sitting president here in the United States is not noted for his sympathies toward Muslims or, indeed, people of colors or faiths different from his own.

It is now a well-established matter of record that the Burmese army has inflicted great and systematic harm on every ethnic minority within the borders of Myanmar. Simply put, the nationalistic Burmese are deeply troubled by “others” who do not share their blood.

Into this mess, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and subsequently elected with great hope, especially by those who worked long and hard for her. Feryal Gharahi and I visited her when she was under house arrest; later to be reunited in Los Angeles at an event we arranged to celebrate her release. Now, many of us who undertake human rights work take a dim view of her. Being “right” in the current situation is easy in light of all the press appropriately criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi for allowing this to happen and not taking a firm stand.

I have some doubts as to the use of the word genocide being used to describe the current situation in Myanmar. Often human rights groups, in order to raise finances (badly needed really), can throw the term out into the public discourse rather than actually investigating and uncovering the facts, but the latest reports issued by NGOs like Human Rights Watch are enough to terrify any reader.

My view is this: Aung San Suu Kyi could still be the heroine for this human rights disaster and the immense pain suffered by the Rohingya. Worry about pain inflicted on Islamic communities is not all that common in the United States. Aung San Suu Kyi knows that. The Burmese military know that. Trump proves it to date as the United States turns what seems to be a blind eye to the goings on in western Myanmar.

So how can Aung San Suu Kyi still be a heroine?

Those of us who worked for her return to normal life in Myanmar also fought for civilian rule. Ousting the military was the principal goal; her release was a part of a greater cause. Human rights groups needed her as a symbol. It worked. She won, and then turned around to say that she was not a human rights activist but a politician. I took that comment to heart because I felt it was a shift, an important shift. Things were going to get dirty in Myanmar and she knew it.

The Burmese majority is super-nationalistic, from the Buddhist monks to the military to the average person in the street. If Aung San Suu Kyi spoke out clearly and forcibly in support of the Rohingya, her military and her people, yes, her people, would turn on her in an instant. The Burmese military would take over and any semblance of representative democracy would vanish. That future is a dim one and to be avoided, if possible. Aung San Suu Kyi could be calculating her chances of survival daily. That survival would end if she listened to the voices in the Western media. There really is no other politician available to win the nation against the military. Aung San Suu Kyi might be the only voice of reason regarding the Rohingya in Myanmar, but she is facing a nation full of anger and hostility to all the minority peoples in Myanmar.

Given that situation, my advice from 5,000 miles away is that Aung San Suu Kyi should champion a long-term policy of issuing passports for all the people in Myanmar, including the Rohingya. Just repatriating those who fled to Bangladesh back does not really cure the ill of oppression and violence inflicted on that community. Yes, getting food, medical care and protection for the returning Rohingya are terribly needed, but it is a community that also should be conferred official recognition by the country in which they live. An international narrative must be started, and can be led in part by Aung San Suu Kyi, regarding full citizenship for all minorities within Myanmar. According to the UNHCR, there are between 12 to 15 million stateless people around the world – many displaced by internal strife. Aung San Suu Kyi could and should help lower that number by moving the Rohingya out of that category. The United States ought to stop all military support for the Burmese military and come to grips with helping a fledging democracy in Asia to remain one.

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