Over the past three weeks photographs of anguished, starving and desperate Rohingya Muslims have shocked readers as hundreds of thousands have fled the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, streaming into neighboring Bangladesh.
Another image, that of an impassive Aung San Suu Kyi — Myanmar’s de facto leader — has also entered the public debate, raising the question: Why doesn’t the Nobel Peace laureate speak out?
It is hard to know her motivation; political calculation could well be at the core of Suu Kyi’s silence. Be that as it may, she remains an elected political leader in Myanmar with a moral obligation to address abuses against the minority Rohingya Muslims.
She commands the reverence and respect of the majority ethnic Burman population and has the authority to shape political opinion significantly. She can also work, as she has done in the past, with her international supporters to exercise their political leverage on the Myanmar military and use her privileged position with them to ensure pressure on the armed forces, resulting in an end to the atrocities being committed against the Rohingya.
In November 2015, she infamously declared that she would be “above the President” if her party won the national elections. Yet her public position on the Rohingya situation — which UN Secretary-General António Guterres described as a catastrophic humanitarian crisis — is not statesmanlike.
She remains curiously distant, stating in the past that she wished “not to take sides” and more recently blaming “terrorists for an iceberg of misinformation.” Increasingly, the Nobel champion of those whose rights were trampled on for decades by a brutal military is looking isolated, stubborn and uncaring.
The reality is that even if Suu Kyi wanted to, she could not immediately put an end to the persecution of the Rohingya. An almost universal antagonism toward the minority Muslim community is one of the deeper fault lines in Myanmar society. Her party, the National League for Democracy, has echoed the military’s rhetoric about the Rohingya being “illegal immigrants” and soon after its election in 2015 declared that helping the Rohingya “was not a priority.”
The international context remains weak, too. Despite the rapid escalation of attention by the United Nations — which included the UN human rights chief terming it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” — there is little chance that UN action will go beyond these rebukes. Myanmar has already made clear it is counting on its allies, permanent UN Security Council members China and Russia, to block a UN resolution on the crisis.
Then there is the reality of the Myanmar’s ostensibly civilian-led government where the military has the levers of power. The army continues to hold key ministries, and the prospect of constitutional reform that would reduce its control of parliament remains a distant prospect.
In addition, there are questions over the National League for Democracy’s commitment to reform. Suu Kyi’s party has a parliamentary majority, which gives it the power to remove repressive legislation. Instead, it has failed to carry out any discernible human rights reforms, and oppressive laws continue to be in force giving the government powers to detain and charge its critics.
Despite major peace talks — which began soon after the 2015 election — conflict rages between state security forces and armed groups across the Kachin and Shan states, causing immense human suffering and reasserting the authority of the military.
All this notwithstanding, Suu Kyi could still salvage her legacy and find her voice to speak out against the violent persecution of the Rohingya by her own government.
There is no broader reform agenda if she continues to preside over a state that sanctions racism and terror. Her position within the government is not merely symbolic; she occupies at least three offices as state counsellor, foreign minister and minister of the president’s office. As a politically elected representative of the government, she bears the moral responsibility to do right by her people, which include the Rohingya Muslims.