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Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was dubbed by many as the beacon of hope for democracy. She endured two decades of repression and was placed under house arrest for fifteen years. In the name of liberating Myanmar from the iron tight grip of the military-backed incumbent, she had even placed her family second. Yet, since her party’s rise to power last year, Aung San Suu Kyi has done nothing to stop the Rohingya refugee crisis from unfolding before her eyes.
According to OCHA, more than 600 thousand Rohingya refugees had fled across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh, and thousands more remain stranded and in peril in Myanmar, without the means to cross the border to Bangladesh. Refugees arriving in Bangladesh are traumatized, and some have arrived with injuries caused by gunshots, shrapnel, fire, and landmines. NPR highlights that “reports of unbridled murder and arson, rape and persecution have followed [Rohingya] out of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, sketching a stark portrait of government violence.”
According to the Washington Post Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to visit the center of the violence, and in her public comments she has refrained from criticising the armed forces, which demonstrates that she’s silently endorsing the very atrocities she tried to end when she boycotted and overthrew the Union Solidarity and Development Party. Washington post further reports that Suu Kyi claimed that there was an “iceberg of misinformation” circulating about the situation of Rakhine. Her office has mocked supposed “fake news” about the plight of the Rohingyas. There has been heavy public criticism towards Aung San Suu Kyi’s blatant hypocrisy. Irish musician and activist Bob Geldof called the Myanmar leader “a handmaiden to genocide”, saying that “her association with our city shames us all and we should have no truck with it, even by default. We honored her, now she appalls and shames us”.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to comment on the violence against Rohingya Muslims is not new. As The Washington Post rightfully points out, “She has never demonstrated much sympathy”. In the 2015 election, Suu Kyi had likewise refused to discuss the ongoing bloodshed in Rakhine. One of her best-known biographers, Peter Popham, defended Suu Kyi, stating that she is not “at her core, a bigot”, justifying her silence on the matter with her obligation to align her views with that of her party’s. The National League for Democracy Party has always held little concern for the plight of the Rohingyas. To them, they see the Rohingya Muslims as “Bengalis” or outsiders. The Washington Post suggests that foreign pressure on her to stop the Rohingya crisis seems to have made her more intransigent.
As an icon for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the matter is morally reprehensible. It has dashed the hopes of many who see Suu Kyi was prepared to see peace restored in Myanmar after years of the repressive military crackdown. While the UN, the United States, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have issued standard condemnations, and Muslim-majority Indonesia has been the most active, sending their foreign minister for urgent talks with Myanmar. However, condemnations are not enough. Economic sanctions are needed to coerce the leaders into taking actions to end their hypocrisy and human rights abuses.
The situation in Bangladesh is dire. Beset by socio-economic problems, no adequate refuge has been provided for the Rohingya Muslims. CNN reports that Bangladesh announced in late October that it will build a single, enormous refugee camp to house around 800 thousand Rohingya Muslims. Bangladesh’s secretary of disaster management of relief, Mohammad Shah Kamal, is confident that the camp will be able to accommodate the influx of refugees, including up to 300 thousand who had already been living in Bangladesh before the recent outbreak of violence.
The path to peace and a violent-free Myanmar will be a long one. The international community and neighboring countries will need to take a tougher stance against Myanmar to end the ethnic cleansing campaign that has had a rippling effect around the world.