It’s nothing new. Throughout history, prominent political and even religious leaders and institutions have kept silent about enormities, which they had vehemently opposed in the past.
From the late Pope Pius XII’s failure to loudly condemn Nazi Germany’s extermination of millions of Jews during the Second World War, to Washington’s reticence in denouncing Cairo’s brutal suppression of Islamist protests earlier this year, there are many examples of tongue-tied regimes playing politics with morality and justice.
That doesn’t make such politically motivated no-comments right; nor does it serve the entities keeping mum in the long run. Silence means consent, the law has long stipulated, and renowned opponents of abuse and oppression send that very signal when they don’t speak out against such abuses and atrocities, whatever their reasons.
Speak up, Aung San Suu Kyi
So it is right and just for many human rights advocates across the globe to attack Myanmar pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi for her public acquiescence in the persecution of Muslims in her country.
Ethnic violence erupted in June and October last year between Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and its Muslim minority, which comprised most of the 140,000 rendered homeless and the hundreds killed. The government puts the death toll at 192; one Muslim group, the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship despite having lived in Myanmar for generations, count 748 dead.
While not state policy, animosity and violence against Muslims have been tacitly sanctioned for years, and foreign governments and world media have long ignored it.
But it’s still reprehensible, and even more so is the assenting silence of a widely admired and supported advocate of freedom and democracy.
A condemnation from Suu Kyi might not have stopped the excesses, but then her word’s failure to stanch the Myanmar junta’s suppression over two decades didn’t stop her from speaking out against it, so why not the ethnic attacks? Is it because opposing military rule and keeping silent about the Muslims’ plight both help her quest for national power?
Well, if Suu Kyi won’t speak up against the oppression and killing of Myanmar Muslims, she should, among other remedies, return her Nobel Peace Prize.
The presidency before principles
The belated outrage over recent pogroms, the latest in Thandwe last month, have centered less on the inaction of President Thein Sein’s government and more on the lack of condemnation by the country’s democracy icon Suu Kyi.
Recently, Maung Zarni, a Myanmar academic at the London School of Economics, said: “It is Suu Kyi, not the ethnic cleansing itself, that the media finds worthy of a headline.”
Certainly, there have been lots of headlines that have battered her freedom-loving reputation by exposing her as a hardheaded politician focused on one and only one thing: the presidency of her country.
Hence, her utter silence about the ultra-nationalist Buddhist majority’s attacks on Muslims, in her calculated tactic to win voter support at the expense of what is right and just.
No matter that the presidency is a goal almost impossible for her to achieve. But she will give it her best shot, even if it means turning her back on the democratic principles for which she suffered more than two decades of house arrest.
For sure, the Lady’s not for turning on this, as indicated by her recent refusal to meet a delegation from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, which groups the world’s Muslim nations, and as she coldly demonstrated in her October interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain.
Repeatedly asked to condemn anti-Islamic sentiment and the wave of mob-led massacres of Muslims in Myanmar, she declined to do so. No sense, she evidently thought, in riling the country’s huge Buddhist majority, which loathes its small Muslim community with a passion.
A passionate hatred for Muslims
As Thomas Fuller wrote in The New York Times on November 9: “Hatred for Muslims and the fear of appearing sympathetic to them run so deeply in Myanmar that officials seem afraid even to console the victims’ families.”
Fuller’s report about the latest butchery includes an account of the hacking and burning to death of crippled and elderly Muslims. His story, headlined ‘Horrendous killings, without an uproar,’ noted: “In Myanmar today, deploring the fatal stabbing of a 94-year-old woman is considered taking sides.”
That animosity is now openly displayed in Nazi-inspired 969 signs on shops and restaurants to indicate Muslims are not welcome. And Suu Kyi is not going to alienate her biggest vote bank by sympathizing with the Muslim minority no matter what atrocity befalls them. Instead, she is going to do what her fellow bigoted Buddhist compatriots do: stay quiet or dissemble, and in private cheer.
Especially since many Muslims aren’t even voting citizens. Last week, the government rejected a U.N. General Assembly resolution asking for citizenship to be granted to the Rohingya. “Citizenship will not be granted to those who are not entitled to it under this law no matter whoever applies pressure on us,” government spokesman Ye Htut said in a statement. “It is our sovereign right.”
Like Fuller’s report, most Western press also deplore not just the institutionalized abuse and violence against Muslims, but the silence of Suu Kyi. Her evasive answers to the BBC, said David Blair in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, “sent a shiver down my spine.” He was particularly shocked when the democracy icon claimed that Buddhists suffer as much from the fear of violence as Muslims.
Suu Kyi was lying. They don’t.
The latest anti-Muslim pogroms have occurred in 11 towns across Myanmar, causing more than 100 deaths, displacing 12,000 people and destroying 1,300 homes and 32 mosques. Nothing remotely comparable has happened to the Buddhist community.
Where is her courage now?
When Mishal Husain asked her: “Do you condemn the anti-Muslim violence?” Suu Kyi replied: “I condemn any movement that is based on hatred and extremism.” Blair aptly remarked: “How could a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize fail to answer that question with a simple ‘Yes’?”
Well, Suu Kyi could and she will continue to do so because she wants to be president.
But others, especially in this region, can act by not visiting Myanmar till this carnage ends.
Or if a visit must be made, take a big black marker pen and daub a swastika over those foul 969 stickers. But it’ll take courage. Something evidently gone on this issue from Myanmar’s freedom advocate-turned-political animal.
(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)