Aung San Suu Kyi's Historical Bias Against Rohingya Muslims

11 December 2017

The Rohingya Muslims, a community that lives in the western Rakhine province of Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are among the most persecuted minorities in the world. After a spate of targeted violence against the community by Myanmar’s army that began in August this year, over 600,000 Rohingyas fled into neighbouring Bangladesh. In his 2016 book, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, the author Azeem Ibrahim traced the history of the Rohingya people to demonstrate how their persecution has been unfolding over decades, going back as early as 1948.

In October this year, Ibrahim released a revised edition of the book, incorporating his research into the recent exodus of the Rohingya community. In the following excerpt, from the preface to South Asian 2017 edition, Ibrahim discusses the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counsellor and a Nobel peace laureate, in the violence against the minority community.

On 19 September 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi finally addressed the issue of the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that has been ongoing since mid-August. This period has seen 410,000 Rohingya refugees flee to neighbouring Bangladesh with no possessions, in an attempt to save their lives.

Her speech was notable for the misinformation and misleading statements it contained. She stated she wanted to “find out why this is happening”—this, after having agreed to the inquiry commission led by Kofi Annan in 2016 following similar violence, and then chosen to disparage and ignore his report. She claimed that “despite all our efforts we could not stop conflict” when she has done nothing since the earlier sectarian violence in 2016 to deal with the situation. She claims that there have been “no clearing operations since 5 September” when western journalists based in Bangladesh report seeing fresh fires in villages in Myanmar. While trying to deny there has been any sustained violence against the Rohingyas, she was reduced to claiming that “more than 50 percent of Muslim villages are intact.”

In addition, she claimed that a “strategy for citizenship requires cooperation from all communities.”. This, in a situation where the state she leads has denied citizenship to the Rohingyas and systematically sought to destroy all their documentation. She mentioned that the 1993 rules will be used to verify and grant citizenship. [The Rohingya Repatriation Agreement of 1993 was signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar after an exodus of Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1991.] But not only do these rules already discriminate against the Rohingyas, the Myanmar authorities destroyed many older identity papers in 2015. And, of course, those who have just fled their burning villages have lost all their documentation. In her speech, at no stage did she mention the word “Rohingya,” instead using the term “Muslim” or “Bengali” to describe the community.

In effect, her speech was not intended to be heard in Myanmar. Liberally laced with words such as peace, stability, harmony and progress, it deliberately misrepresented the reality of what is happening in Rakhine. Her audience was the wider world in an attempt to deflect the mounting criticism of her own role (and silence) in the face of ethnic cleansing. This may have surprised many whose understanding of Aung San Suu Kyi has been mediated through the lens of her being presented as a campaigner for democracy and human rights. The problem is that she has never extended these rights to the Rohingyas.

The first edition of this book was completed during the run up to the 2015 elections in Myanmar and the immediate aftermath. Those elections were widely seen as fair and were won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) by a landslide—even though a number of seats in the Parliament were reserved for the party created by the military in 2009, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). At the time, it was apparent that both external commentators and the Rohingya community themselves were unclear as to the implications.

What had been widely ignored in the West was that before the elections the NLD had removed all Muslims from its candidates’ lists and, as it had done since its formation in the late 1980s, continued to repeat the conventional sectarian narrative about the Rohingya—that they are “Bengalis” who have no innate right to live in Myanmar. The NLD repeated the argument that they were migrants who had arrived once the British occupied Rakhine (then called Arakan) in 1824.

There were two conflicting interpretations of this stance of NLD’s. One was that it was purely tactical. Repeating the lies of the military and the Buddhist extremists was a pragmatic necessity as the NLD navigated the complex pre-election political situation and sought to slowly shift power away from the military. In government, the hope was, the NLD would not act on its statements but instead look for ways to reduce the persecution of the Rohingyas without directly challenging the other power blocks in contemporary Myanmar. This hope existed among the Rohingyas, too, and it was noticeable that the annual refugee migration was much more limited in 2015 as they opted to wait, and hope, for a better future in Myanmar.

The alternative interpretation, and this is the argument made in the book, is that the NLD’s continued scapegoating of the Rohingyas was not just a tactical stance to avoid pre-election conflicts or a post-election military coup. The NLD’s leadership, especially the Nobel Prize winning Aung San Suu Kyi, have always believed the Rohingyas have no place in their Buddhist state. Even at its conception, in the midst of a pro-democracy revolt, the NLD had had no problems making a close alliance with a sectarian ethnic-Rakhine party that was calling for the expulsion of the Rohingyas.

On this interpretation, the best that could happen for the Rohingya community in NLD-ruled Myanmar was a let up in active persecution and perhaps constraints placed on the Rakhine extremists who were behind the 2012 and 2013 massacres of the Rohingyas.

Some actions by the NLD give credence to this interpretation: Even before the election, the party’s links with its old Rakhine allies had been broken—on the grounds that the NLD was being too tolerant of Muslims (one consequence of this sentiment was the NLD only won eight out of the 35 constituencies in Rakhine in 2015). And after the election, which brought the NLD to power, the sectarian, ultra-nationalist monks organised within the Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha lost influence, in particular over Myanmar’s education system.

In reality, however, the actions of the NLD that created these breaches were less about protecting Myanmar’s Muslim community and more about the threat that legislation passed by the old government posed to women’s rights in Myanmar. Still, regardless of the motive, the stance was correct, and did feed into the emerging hope that in government the NLD might be different to its pre-election statements.

It is obvious now that the hope was misplaced. The fundamental problem is that there is every reason to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi has certain anti-Muslim views. Her writings reflect an affinity for the common claim among the Theravada Buddhist community that the state must protect the religion and that religious diversity is a threat to the Buddhist sasana [or religion]. Both before and after the election she refused to use the word Rohingya and every statement suggests she fully believes they are illegal immigrants who have no rights in modern-day Myanmar. She has recently complained to the BBC after finding out that her interviewer was a Muslim. Of course, in the light of recent events, she has been challenged on this by other holders of the Nobel Peace Prize and her response has been to refuse to attend international gatherings and to complain about “fake news.”

If the problem in Myanmar was that we were simply dealing with a government led by someone with views that actively discriminate against a minority, the international community would be concerned, but not feel impelled to do very much—this problem, after all, is scarcely unique in the modern world. But the danger in Myanmar is that prejudices have deadly consequences.

This is an excerpt from Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide published by Speaking Tiger in October 2017.

Azeem Ibrahim has a PhD from the University of Cambridge. He has been a Research Fellow with the International Security Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale.