12:00 AM, November 29, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 29, 2012

Showdown for a Nobel Peace Laureate: The fate of Rohingyas

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Ruby Amatulla

The Nobel Prize remains by no means a measure of true leadership, let alone a measure of a person's integrity or moral standing.
Even a well-celebrated person cannot be a leader without taking a moral stand on issues that deeply matter to a nation. The rights of disadvantaged minorities often reflect the overall wellness and ethical character of the society.
The Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has declined to take a stand on the deadly communal unrest in her country saying she will not use "moral leadership" in the matter in taking any side. If she cannot give moral leadership then what kind of leadership would she be able to give to this divided nation?
A person like Henry Kissinger and many other controversial figures who at times were ruthless also got the Nobel Prize. That prize neither absolves a person nor covers up his/her moral failures.
More than 100,000 Rohingyas -- not Buddhists -- have been displaced, 10,000 homes burned, and about 200 people, mostly Rohingyas, have been killed since June of this year. The UN has called Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingyas as "the world's most persecuted minority."
In 1978, about 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh when the Myanmarese military tried to expel the entire population from Rakhine state. In 1982, the Myanmarese military government removed the Rohingyas' Myanmarese citizenship since the British colonial era. Their state of lack of citizenship has made them prey to the whims of local military, police and officials. In 1990-91 the Myanmar military launched another campaign against the Rohingyas including forced labour, summary executions, torture and rape and consequently another 250,000 Rohingyas trekked into Bangladesh.
These are the staggering well-known facts that Suu Kyi conveniently ignored and branded both sides as equals in perpetrating crimes against humanity. It is no wonder many in the international community are branding her as a "hypocrite."
She said: "But don't forget that violence has been committed by both sides. This is why I prefer not to take sides. And, also I want to work toward reconciliation between these two communities. I am not going to be able to do that if I take sides."
Who is asking her to take sides? She should be on the right side vehemently condemning violence and oppression irrespective of whoever perpetrates it. If she fails to take the right stand due to possible political repercussions from the majority then she fails the test of democracy altogether. An essential measure of success of democratic governments involves protection of minority rights. That is a fundamental concept in any republic. Although she constantly says that she fights for the rights of her community, she refuses to fight for the rights of minorities in that same community. This is hypocrisy indeed.
Facing the barrage of criticism from the international community she then quickly changed her explanation: now she says she is not taking any side because she wants reconciliation between Rohingyas and Buddhists.
How can one proceed with reconciliation without addressing the issues of the damage done or the sufferings caused, and how could these be repaired and left behind? There is no alternative to realisation, recognition and reparation in healing wounds and attempting national reconciliation after such horrendous affairs.
Without this reconciliation and proper due process of integration in the society it cannot move forward towards democracy and progress. If she fails to acknowledge this I have no idea how she would help to integrate a society with 300 ethnic minorities and move the nation ahead towards stability and success? Without pluralism, tolerance and national integration can a society be democratic?
She is free now and well on her way to the throne of power, but at this critical time she is failing the critical test of good governance: to be fair and impartial. Instead she is looking away from a staggering case of injustice and inhuman persecution against one of the minority group.
I always had a deep admiration for Suu Kyi: I saw her as an icon of freedom and beacon of hope in our time. This incident robbed those feelings from me. Yet I would like to give her the benefit of doubt. May be this is one failure that she will soon overcome and become a good leader with a mission of justice and generosity towards the Rohingyas and other minorities. May be she will soon realise the gravity of her failure in this critical matter -- upholding the rights and dignity of minorities in a society -- and address the issue with a high degree of conviction and resolution. May be she will be awakened by the speech President Obama delivered while visiting her country. May be she will realise herself that only through impartial rule of law can she hope to integrate a diverse society such as hers and lead it towards peace, justice and progress.
Unless and until she does that and I see a vivid demonstration of reclamation, my feelings would continue to be extremely let down.

The writer is Executive Director, Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress, based in the US.

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