Aung Sun Suu Kyi won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991. The Nobel committee recognised with respect her non-violent struggle for democracy. However, today it is violence that has reared its ugly head in Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi’s Myanmar. Not only have the Rohingya Muslims been denied of their citizenship, but their houses have been burnt to the ground, men have been killed, women raped. Though the Rohingyas couldn’t vote in the last election as their citizens’ rights had been snatched away, they had all along supported the movement for democracy.
Renowned Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner once told me in the passing, a Burmese Muslim leader had actively participated in a meeting with Suu Kyi before she addressed the public gathering at the Shwedagon grounds on 26 August 1988. The Rohingyas have been living for hundreds of years in Myanmar, they have enriched its economy, and now they are being driven out of the country.
The military rulers, against whom Suu Kyi struggled to come to power, amended the constitution in 1982 to render the Rohingyas a stateless people. The law then stated that the only those who arrived in Myanmar before 1823 would be recognised as citizens of the country. When the Burmese king was toppled during the Anglo-Burmese war in 1824, the entire territory went under British colonial rule. The Arakan state was an expanse of forests and hills. The British government settled Bangla-speaking people from the plains to clear the hills and the jungles to cultivate there. So they have been permanent residents of the country from then. Many Rakhines still live in Patuakhali, Cox’s Bazar, Bandarban and other parts of the country. Even Sarat Chandra Chattapadhaya’s novel Srikanth has mention of Indians, that is, Bengalis, going to Myanmar to eke out a living and to marry.
Even after Myanmar (Burma) gained independence in 1948, the Rohingyas faced no problem living there. Like any other community, they received their due rights and benefits. The original constitution held that those who arrived before 1948 were all citizens of the country. In 1962 after martial law was imposed, persecution of the Rohingyas began. Driven by the state forces or extremist Rakhines, they often had to seek shelter in Bangladesh.
It had been hoped that the sufferings of the Rohingyas would come to an end when Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power in 2015. It was assumed that the prejudiced policies of the military government would be cancelled during the democratic rule, but that did not happen.
After an extended silence on the Rohingya issue, last year Suu Kyi finally formed a commission headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan. This comprised outside experts as well as representatives of the Myanmar government. On 24 August the commission handed over its report to the Myanmar president Thein Kyu and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. It recommended the economic development of the Rakhine state, recognising the citizenship of the Rohingyas, allowing them free movement and ensuring equal rights and benefits for all.
However, within a matter of hours after the report was submitted, terrorists attacked 30 police and security force posts, killing eleven persons. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the attack. In retaliation, the security forces went on a spree of killing, looting and arson in the Rohingya-populated areas. The international media termed this as ‘operation cleansing’.
Along with all peace-loving people of the world, we too condemned the attack on the police and security force posts. But it is an extreme violation of human rights to launch a war on a community, razing their homes to ground, killing them indiscriminately, in retaliation of the attack by a terrorist organisation. The Myanmar government claimed that the attackers were killed in the counter-attack and that their camps had been destroyed. So why is there all this fury against the innocent Rohingyas?
We see sheer panic in the eyes of the Rohigyas fleeing from Myanmar, crossing the river Naaf and barbed wire fences to enter Bangladesh. They are suffering and hungry. They face the risk of landmines. Most of those seeking refuge in Bangladesh are women, children and the elderly. So where are the youth? There is no way of knowing if they are alive or dead because the democratic government of Myanmar is not allowing foreign reporters or relief workers into the Rohingya-populated areas.
I had visited Yangon in March 2015 to attend an international conference on the free press, organised by the East West Centre. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition at the time, addressed the conference, calling upon the journalists to write without fear of state disapproval. She urged them to expose the truth. Yet today Suu Kyi’s democracy is ailing. Journalists are not being allowed into the distressed areas. At the initiative of the government some journalists did pay a visit to the area, and found no one in the villages, the homes smouldering in fire.
In recent times Suu Kyi’s office issued a statement, and she said the same thing in a telephonic conversation with the Turkish president Erdogan, that people of all communities in Rakhine are safe! There were no violations of human rights. She claimed that the news and pictures in the foreign media were all false. So why are thousands and thousands of Rohigyas fleeing the country, trekking over rough terrain, risking their lives, to cross the borders? Why does the Myanmar government now allow the foreign media, observers and human rights workers access to the area?
Aung San Suu Kyi has said people of all communities are safe there. So is she excluding the Rohingyas? She says even if they are not citizens, they are people. It is unimaginable that such violations of human rights are taking place in front of Suu Kyi, who had won the peace prize, who decried the path of violence, who saw non-violence as a way of life. When the US ambassador used the term ‘Rohingyas’, Suu Kyi rectified him, saying. “Don’t call them Rohingyas.” In other words, the Nobel Laureate is denying their ethnic identity. How is the Nobel Laureate so cruel?
Aung San Suu Kyi should keep in mind that when the military had placed her behind bars, the Rohingyas had also taken to the streets, demanding her release. She speaks of human bonds, but she herself is breaking those bonds with her own hands.
The powerful countries are indulging Myanmar in their own interests, remaining silent about the atrocities or, at the most, murmuring feeble protest. Others are ignoring the persecution completely and condemning the terrorist incidents or militant attacks. Surely the state cannot use these instances of terrorism to annihilate an entire race.
Bangladesh values the bond of humanity and that is why it has given shelter to the Rohingya refugees for around four decades. Over the past two weeks around 200,000 Rohigyas have entered Bangladesh. We are helping them to the best of our ability. Myanmar media has itself reported that the common Rohingyas are not with ARSA, so why are they being persecuted? They don’t want a new country, they don’t want to take shelter in another country. They simply want to be recognised as citizens of the country where they have been residing generation after generation.
Is this too much to ask of the Nobel Peace prize winner Suu Kyi? If she distances herself from these hapless people, history will not forgive her.
* Sohrab Hassan is a poet and journalist. He can be contacted at email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>.
*This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.