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.

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.