Aung San Suu Kyi's inability to speak up for the Rohingya in Myanmar has been a riddle. The Western world had elevated her almost to the status of sainthood, only to find that she is actually a politician, happy to switch sides as convenient. In the process, it is the Myanmar regime that benefited most from her celebrity status, as they legitimised their hold on power. Suu Kyi, however, defended her government's actions, saying that it cannot solve the Rohingya issue within a short time as the “…situation in Rakhine has been such since many decades.”
To understand what Suu Kyi means, we have to go back many years.
Just like the original inhabitants' claim on Jerusalem, there is a debate on who the first settlers were in Arakan (or Rakhine, as it is presently known). Burmese nationalists claim Rakhine people have lived in Arakan since 3000 BCE although there is no archaeological evidence to support this. By the fourth century, India's influence began to come into play in Southeast Asia, Arakan being among the first. The Chandra dynasty of the Samatata region of Bengal ruled northern Arakan between the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was a Buddhist stronghold and played an important role in the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to Southeast Asia. Islam reached the shores of Arakan during the late eighth century with Arab sailors and missionaries. Rakhines began migrating from upper Burma to Arakan in the ninth century.
In 1406, Arakan King Narameikhla Min Saw Mon ran away to the Bengal Sultanate, as he lost out to rival groups. After 23 years of exile, he reclaimed his kingdom with the help of the Sultan of Bengal. Thereafter, Arakan remained independent until the eighteenth century. During its heydays, it controlled most of southeastern Bangladesh which they lost to the Mughals in 1766 after a series of land and naval battles. They ceased to be a sovereign country altogether when the Burmese Konbaung dynasty conquered them in 1784.
Burmese scholars agree that Buddhism spread to Arakan and beyond during the rule of the Chandra dynasty, but maintain that Islam arrived there much later, and only with the British colonial rulers, when Muslims from Chattogram started settling there. What happened after that is more to the point.
British colonial power conquered Arakan in 1826, and the rest of Burma in 1885. They brought Indians to assist in its colonisation efforts who received preferential treatment over the locals—a signature British tactic. Local Bamars bitterly resented it.
Second World War. Japanese forces marched into Burma. Bamars supported the Japanese (their “saviour”) and the Indians sided with the British. The crack in the society became wide open. 1942 witnessed a large-scale massacre in Arakan, perpetrated by both sides. Each lost tens of thousands; many were raped, tortured and maimed. In 1946, Arakanese Muslim leaders approached Pakistan's founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah and offered to join Pakistan. Jinnah declined. They then requested Burmese leaders for the concession of two townships to Pakistan. Such events are deeply etched in the collective memory of the Burmese rulers, and mistrust and suspicion linger.
Post-1948 saw the independence of Burma and its gradual sliding down to a military regime, under the tight control of the Bamars, leading to its isolation from the rest of the world. They continued their policy of discrimination against Indians, especially Muslims, declaring them non-citizens in 1982, and eventually the “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”. In early 1990s, the international community imposed economic sanctions on Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989). The military regime politicised religion to such an extent that it gave rise to the so-called militant Buddhism, an ideology poles apart from the very foundations of Buddha's teachings, making Muslims their worst enemy, craftily utilising the global wave of Islamophobia.
Aung San Suu Kyi, General Aung San's daughter, rose to prominence during her 15 years of imprisonment over a period of 21 years from 1989 to 2010. The legacy of her father was too strong for the Burmese generals to ignore her, as she steadfastly fought for democracy. The government placed her under house arrest and made her an offer saying she could leave the country. But she refused repeatedly, even when her husband was terminally ill. In 1996, Suu Kyi's motorcade came under attack in Yangon, almost killing her. She turned down offers for roles in interim governments, saying “the future of the opposition would be decided by masses of the people.”
Suu Kyi has demonstrated loyalty towards her people, but the people are vehemently against conceding any rights to the Rohingya. Despite her liberal Western upbringing, she won't do anything to jeopardise her support base. Without their support, the charisma will be gone, making her valueless both to the generals and the Western world.
The stakes are much higher than they appear. Suu Kyi has provided legitimacy to the military regime of Myanmar, as Sebastian Strangio explains in his article titled “The Fall of Aung San Suu Kyi, Democracy Icon”. The regime neatly orchestrated a stage-managed election in which Suu Kyi-led NLD won a landslide victory. Western nations lifted sanctions with great satisfaction, big corporations scrambled to Myanmar to grab a share of the new market, but real power remained with the Tatmadaw. Of course, she knew this, but Suu Kyi still complied while the regime utilised her beatified image to get out of isolation. The lesson here is that a murderous regime can get away with genocide if they can play the right game. Suu Kyi is now complicit in the horrendous abuse of human rights in Myanmar.
It's quite natural for one to expect more from Suu Kyi. Unfortunately, her position on the Rohingya issue has been extremely disappointing, and of late, most appalling. Only time will tell if she will ever change her stance on the Rohingya issue. As of now, it is not just her silence, but also her vocal support for the murderous regime in Myanmar that risks putting all our accepted values and norms on the line.
Sayeed Ahmed is a consulting engineer with experience in infrastructure project management in South Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific. His interest includes broad-based development and inclusive growth.