In her 2012 Nobel lecture, Myanmar’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, made an impassioned appeal to the world not to forget those who are suffering “hunger, disease, displacement, joblessness, poverty, injustice, discrimination, prejudice, bigotry” and war. Aung San Suu Kyi declared, “Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.”
Today in Myanmar, also known as Burma, the truth of her words is becoming ever more apparent in the spiral of violence and suffering of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. After years of being denigrated as outsiders by the Buddhist majority, denied basic rights, stuck in miserable camps and subjected to harsh military campaigns, the Rohingya are embittered, and some are enraged.
On Aug. 25, fighters from a small militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, staged surprise raids on 30 police stations and an army base in Rakhine State, where many Rohingya live. The attacks, in which 110 people died, including 10 policemen and many of the militants, triggered a crackdown by Myanmar’s military. Witnesses said soldiers torched villages and sent thousands of Rohingya fleeing across the Naf River to neighboring Bangladesh, which is already home to about 400,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar in recent years. Desperate to escape the retaliation, Rohingya took to flimsy vessels poorly equipped for rough waters. On Thursday, Bangladesh authorities said three boats capsized and that they recovered the bodies of 26 women and children.
This is a very difficult moment for Aung San Suu Kyi, who as state counsellor holds the power behind President Htin Kyaw. She is facing constant pressure from the powerful military, which controls a quarter of the seats in parliament and key ministries, and she also confronts the demands of Buddhist hard-liners for still harsher treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. These are not inconsequential forces in a nation still groping toward establishing democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to push back is not unlimited.
Still, this is a moment for her to fulfill her promise as a champion of human rights and democracy, for which she was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Through long years of house arrest and isolation, she kept the flame burning. Is it too much to ask her to summon the inspiration to lead Burma away from the increasingly bitter and violent conflict with the Rohingya? Now would be a good time for action, including measures toward long-term reconciliation that embrace the Rohingya.
She might want to reread her Nobel text. “Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless,” she said, “a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.” This is not the world of the Rohingya in today’s Myanmar.