She is supposed to defend and act in favor of the oppressed, like she has always done; her unwavering commitment in favor of human rights is even the reason why she is internationally famous. But to foreign observers’ absolute dread, she doesn’t even condemn the exactions committed against a minority in Burma, her own country. She, is Burmese Aung San Suu Kyi; the minority, is the Rohingya Muslims – the most persecuted ethnic group in the world according to the United Nations. Zoom in on this community, whose suffering is not close to stop.
First: who are the Rohingya Muslims?
The Rohingya Muslims are a minority living in Burma (also called Myanmar), in the Rakhine State, formerly Arakan State: they represent between 800,000 and 1.3 million people, in a country of 53 millions inhabitants where 80 to 90% of the population is Buddhist.
Rohingya people in Rakhine (Arakan) State in Burma. © PANONIAN, Wikicommons.
Rohingya Muslims would descend from Arab, Turkish, Mongolian or Bengali traders and soldiers, who converted to Islam and arrived in Burma during the 15th century. This version is however contested by an official position: Rohingya Muslims would have arrived from Bangladesh whilst Burma was being colonized by the United Kingdom in the 1820s, and were favored by the colonial power.
How did the repression against Rohingya Muslims start?
The repression reached a climax during Ne Win’s dictatorship, in the 1970s: journalist Sophie Ansel explains that he “imposed Buddhism as state religion, (…) launched a racist propaganda in schools and media, and then settled purification operations in order to get rid of foreigners”. In other words, getting rid of Rohingya Muslims.
In 1982, the military dictatorship settled another level of exclusion by passing a law that listed 135 ethnic groups in Burma: Rohingya Muslims were not among them since the government only considered Burmese communities that arrived in the country before the British colonization in 1824 – which is not the case of the Muslim minority, according to authorities’ version. This law made Rohingya Muslims people stateless and was described by observers as a radical way of deleting any common history between Buddhists and Muslims.
Due to this repressive context, 200,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh in 1978, and in 1992.
A powerless international community, a growing repression: Rohingya Muslims’ helpless situation
In 2014, the United Nations pressured Burma’s government to make the 1982 law more flexible; it agreed to resolve stateless citizens’ situation, but on one condition: Rohingya Muslims were supposed to identify themselves as Bengalis… an administrative demand that forced them to officially recognize they arrived in Burma as illegal immigrants. All in all, Rohingya Muslims are simply deprived from civil, elementary rights: they can’t get married, travel or work outside their village without authorization.
Evangelos Petratos, Rakhine, Myanmar/Burma June 2014, via Flickr.
In 2012, tensions between both Buddhists and Muslims reached a climax: in the Rakhine State, the latest became Buddhists’ main target. The 969 movement was created: its leader Ashin Wirathu stated that the group sought “to protect the Buddhist identity”… in a country where Muslims represent less than 5% of the population. This position is also shared by official and supreme authorities: former Burmese President Thein Sein asserted that the only option to settle the situation was to simply evict Rohingya Muslims from Burma. This declaration is significant: it implicitly allows the population to commit exactions against Muslims without any sanction.
This announcement had immediate following effects: in October 2012, Human Rights Watch denounced an ethnic cleansing in its report ‘All You Can Do is Pray’: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State. The document accuses Burmese authorities of numerous exactions: destruction of mosques and villages, moving of Rohingya Muslims by force, mainly in camps – 140,000 people were displaced –, refusal of medical treatments, sexual assaults and rapes, forced sterilization.
These multiple crimes led the United Nations to designate Rohingya Muslims as the most persecuted minority in the entire world. A tragic distinction.
In order to flee this violence, Rohingya Muslims emigrate to nearby countries: Bangladesh, Thailand or even Indonesia with really high risks during the trip and once arrived to their final destination – Bangladesh is more and more reluctant to receiving Rohingya Muslims. In April 2016, political situation changed, for the best, to all appearances, for Rohingya Muslims…
Aung San Suu Kyi in power: an aborted hope for the Rohingya population
When 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Aung San Suu Kyi becomes Prime Minister in April 2016, hope comes back: the Lady of Burma is internationally renowned for being a fierce defendant of human rights, and a major opponent to the military junta. But rather quickly, international observers’ hopes and expectations are disappointed: ever since she came to power a year ago, Aung San Suu Kyi remains oddly silent on the Rohingya population’s situation, neither condemning nor evoking exactions it is facing.
Is that a political position, a way of simply avoiding an historically dividing subject in an already fragile state? A means of not offending the crushing Buddhist majority? In any case, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s public position and attitude is really different from the one of in power Aung San Suu Kyi…
This silence and inaction shocked the international community, even more violence rose once again in October 2016 in the Rakhine State: deadly military raids occurred, leading to suspicions of crimes against humanity. In 2017, the United Nations declared that an ethnic cleansing was happening against Rohingya Muslims and established an action plan: in March, the organization decided to send an inquiry commission. However, Burma opposed to the arrival of this commission, asserting that it would only “arouse” the conflict.
Because of this opposition and the alarming testimonies from Rohingya Muslims who fled the country, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) created an independent mission: their suspicions are notably – but not only – focused on “arbitrary incarceration, torture and inhuman treatments, rape and other types of sexual abuse, extrajudicial executions – summary or arbitrary –, forced displacements, illegal destruction of goods.” The creation of this commission is essential, an emergency even.
Indeed, Rohingya Muslims’ situation is more worrying than ever: authorities won’t condemn nor punish violence against them, and atrocities are getting more and more cruel. The situation’s gravity and international calls don’t seem to have any effect on Aung San Suu Kyi, who is yet more entitled than anyone in Burma to stop the massacre, because of her new position and because of her activist past. In this context, one question remains: would power muzzle people getting political responsibilities, including the most noble and committed individuals?
Dear Aung San Suu Kyi, you have been so praised for your admirable, unbending actions for human rights: it is high time to show your commitment and inflexibility once again, and act for Rohingya Muslims. Leave your political discretion behind, put an end to these cruelties – your inaction will tarnish your brilliant place in History.
Featured image: Aung San Suu Kyi is awarded Sakharov Prize at the European Parliament, October, 22nd, 2013. © Claude Truong-Ngoc, Wikicommons.