When Aung San Suu Kyi delivered her landmark acceptance speech after being awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, she made a plea on behalf of victims of persecution worldwide: “Wherever suffering is ignored,” she observed with characteristically understated defiance in her voice, “there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages”. How right she was. How different, though, from her non-committal response last week to whether Rohingya demands for justice in Myanmar should be satisfied: “I don’t know”. Was it pusillanimity, hypocrisy or just a slip of the tongue?
Whatever her justification, for the 800,000 Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Myanmar for centuries, “I don’t know” simply isn’t good enough. Imagine being born country-less, with no state, no police force, no institution to represent you. Imagine being marginalised, ostracised and ignored. Imagine being incarcerated in your village, with no way of escape, no hope of being passported to life. From the moment of their birth, ripped out of an unwelcome womb, each and every Rohingya is deprived of citizenship, a sense of belonging, a part of their identity. Don’t let them die that way too.
Only thanks to bloodbaths in the state of Rakhine in June this year have the Rohingya been stabbed into global consciousness. Houses were torched, villages pillaged, lives snuffed out. Human Rights Watch reckons that around 100,000 people have been dislodged, and labels the government’s death toll of 78 as unquestionably conservative.
By no means can the Rohingya themselves be completely exonerated. Indeed, claims have been made that the rape of a Rakhine woman by three Rohingya men triggered the aggression felt on both sides of the divide. But to avoid more such atrocities, the Rohingya’s case can no longer be left to smoulder alongside razed homes, villages, and families.
Culturally ingrained prejudices will be nigh on impossible to erode without outside help. The head of the Gade Chay monastery, Oo Ku Maar Ka, described the Rohingya as “very cruel, very scary. They have a bad character like a devil”. To reverse prejudices seemingly akin to those directed at Jews in Nazi Germany (and in other historical examples of anti-Semitism), we have no choice but to wake up and smell the coffee.
But Western politicians have been comatose to this issue in the main. Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, is rightly anxious about the skewed image of Myanmar that is being generated: “If the atrocities… had happened before the government’s reform process started, the international reaction would have been swift and strong. But the international community appears to be blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change in Burma, signing new trade deals and lifting sanctions even while the abuses continue”. Violations of human rights fade into the backdrop, as economic deals are pushed through with the more outward looking and reformist government of Thein Sein.
With stigma having long since hardened into dogma, Aung San Suu Kyi, as a symbol of hope and freedom for so many, has to take a stand as she has done so many times in the past. Abuse is abuse, oppression is oppression – the fact that Suu Kyi is now a politician does nothing to alter that fact. Maung Zarni, a specialist on Myanmar, might just have hit the nail on the head when he discusses her new role: “She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote”.
The sacrifice of integrity for popularity is perhaps the defining tenet of our political era. But resounding PR successes don’t even begin to provide the CPR that is needed to prevent this entire community from flatlining. Despite her transition from prisoner to vote-winner, Suu Kyi must use her authority to revitalise and resuscitate debate and discussion, to open minds as well as to open inquiries.
What worries me is that this single event exposes an issue far more endemic and troubling, an issue that will continue to metastisise unless we provide the antidote. Politics, for too long, have been dissociated from principles in the name of compromise, fickleness and vote mongering. If one of the most ardent human rights activists of our age can bend the knee to the voter’s prejudices and bigotries, the truths that start out as blasphemies (often the greatest truths, as George Bernard Shaw once observed) will never be confidently aired. And that is something we simply cannot allow to happen.
Otherwise our era runs the risk of being allied to the desiccated lives of Eliot’s hollow men: “Our dried voices, when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass”. Perhaps I’m mistaken, or perhaps – for as long as we fail to uphold our duties to our fellow human beings – we can only ever be “the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”