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Sourced: Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters.
Sourced: Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters.

The power of silence.

Shay Visser

Aung San Suu Kyi is an international symbol of determination and dedication to the protection of human rights. The Nobel Laureate is known around the world as a stoic woman who has lived through struggle upon struggle for what she believed in. The daughter of a freedom-fighter, she is a heroine who puts the rights of others first. So what happens when such an amazing person, who is compared to great moral leaders like Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, does nothing about the genocide and ethnic cleansing happening under her very nose?

For that is precisely what the Rohingya face in Myanmar. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group with a population of an estimated 1.1 million. They are known as one of the most prosecuted ethnic groups in the world, according to a report from UN in 2012. They are denied citizenship, rendering them stateless. They need a permit to marry and to have children, without which they face incarceration for as long as seven years – and to add to their woes, they are being forced from their ancestral home by the military, along with radical Buddhist mobs. 800,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to the neighbouring country of Bangladesh, and thousands of others have died trying. An eighty-two year old man, who managed to successfully flee from his home, said that he saw the mobs burn down his house and his village, murder young children and old people who were unable to escape. He refuses to go back. “I can starve here. But here I won’t be attacked,” said another refugee.

Reparation for the Rohingya is underway and the Myanmar government is ready to accept the 800,000 people back into their country. The refugees refuse to return. They are deathly afraid and will only return once their own conditions have been met, the main conditions being citizenship and guaranteed safety under the protective gaze of the UN. The government has vehemently rejected the UN’s accusations of ethnic cleansing, as thousands of Rohingya flee from rape, murder and arson. More horrors await them as the storm season approaches in Bangladesh, leaving the Rohingya vulnerable to floods and cyclones. It seems that they will never be safe. So what does Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor of Myanmar say? She says mostly nothing.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won the majority of the seats in Myanmar’s first free election in twenty-five years in 2015. However, under the constitution adopted in 2008 under military rule, she is unable to run for President because her husband and two children hold British passports. She is Myanmar’s first de facto State Counsellor and even though her party won the majority of the seats and she herself holds a position of power, the military still control the most important of the government, including the police and border control. Herein lays her problem. The only apparent reason why she has failed to speak out against the horrific violence is because she is only a de facto and civilian leader, meaning if she did speak out, the government can easily revoke her seat. She is afraid of losing her power to help. A good reason as ever to keep quiet some would think, but she has been known to speak out against authority in the past. In 1999 when her husband was dying of cancer and she was in Myanmar under house arrest, she was offered the opportunity to visit him. She declined, fearing that if she left she would not be allowed back. Her husband died shortly after. This is evidence that she has never needed her power to help.

When she has spoken about the violence, it was only to accuse people of using fake news to blow the situation out of proportion. In the few speeches she made addressing the violence, not once did she say the name the Rohingya. This followed huge criticism from members of the UN who accused her of dehumanising them by refusing to call them by their name, and from the Rohingya themselves who accused her of turning a blind eye to their plight.

Her silence has been questioned and criticised by many, including Sara Bloomfield, director of the US Holocaust Museum and fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu. In 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the prestigious Elie Wiesel Award for advocacy of Human Rights by the US Holocaust Museum and this award was stripped away in 2018. In an open letter to her that can be found on the Museum’s website, Sara Bloomfield criticised her silence and her failure to use her moral authority to end the military campaign. Desmond Tutu said the same in a letter to his “dear sister” saying that if the price for her office is her silence then that price is too steep. Oxford University, where she studied, removed the portrait of her in protest of her silence.

Her silence, no matter the reason for it, only furthers the violence against the Rohingya and the longer she stays mute the longer the suffering of the Rohingya continues. Her reputation is at stake as she is slowly becoming known as the only Nobel Laureate to turn into an apologist for a brutal military rule. If the reason for her silence is to further her own political career to a place where she can help, then she must look back on her own actions and most importantly her own words. I leave you with a quote from her book Freedom from Fear, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.”

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