Identity and Dialogue

Is Aung San Suu Kyi an Islamophobic Nobel peace prize winner?

Is Aung San Suu Kyi an Islamophobic Nobel peace prize winner? June 5, 2015

Folks who study at the University of Oxford like to pride themselves in many people, things and events associated with their university. One of the things they pride in is the fact that they go to a tertiary institution that is oldest in the English speaking world and the alma mater of many celebrities, politicians, scientists, religious leaders, Nobel Prizes winners, etc. It is more about the achievement of other people than their own. The University of Oxford itself does not miss an occasion to advertise itself as the alma mater of 26 of Uk Prime ministers, more than 30 modern world leaders including Bill Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi et Indira Gandhi. It educated also a good number of explorers, writers and philosophers. It also educated a few jobless people but those don’t seem to count and this is not the point of this article.

In 2011, when I was about to travel to the UK to start a master’s degree at Oxford, I used to pride in one of its alumni (known as Oxonians) that has become an international icon for the fight for the rights of entire nations, Aung San Suu Kyi. I knew that Daw Suu had won the 1991Nobel Peace Prize while she was under house arrest in her country Burma (also known as Myanmar). She remained a prisoner in her home for 21 years.

When she went to Oxford, after she was released, to receive her Doctorate Honoris Causa in Civil Law on June 20th, 2012, she made it clear that Burma was still struggling to overcome its past. Currently, a horrific phenomenon has grasped the attention of the entire world and made it understand the fragility of Burma’s democracy: the persecution of a minority people known as Rohingya. The most abhorring aspect of that discrimination is that it was mostly encouraged by Buddhist Monks who were thought to be peaceful and non-violent. One video is highly worth watching for one to comprehend the extent of their hatred towards the Rohingya.

As I usually do it in my blogs, I will describe different – not necessarily opposed – views that might help one get a broad picture of the presented situation in order to allow the reader to reach personal and well informed conclusions.

Sara Perria wrote in The Guardian that “[w]hen thousands of Rohingya people from Burma were discovered floating in boats on the south-east Asian seas much of the world was understandably gripped by this unfolding human tragedy. Voices of anger were raised; something had to be done to end the suffering, to help those men, women and children in need. But what has surprised some is the silence of the Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.” It would be unsurprisingly astonishing to conclude that Western media might think of anyone else to be the measure of ethics in that country ruled by a brutal government.

According to Sara Perria, “ [Aung San Suu Kyi] feared that any statement she made would only fuel tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya, who make up about a third of the population of Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh.” This would mean that Daw Suu helps more her country by remaining silent than by denouncing what the world almost calls a genocide. But, although Sara Perria may suggest that one could consider Daw Suu’s silence as a wise move and does not attempt to suggest that Daw Suu ignores the Rohingya’s case, she hints at showing that Daw Suu might benefit from remaining silent. She wrote that “Aung San Suu Kyi might decide to maintain her silence, calculating it is in her interests to leave the government on its own to deal with any backlash across the country but especially in Rakhine as the elections draw near.” Thus, the government, by not intervening, would portray itself as a brutal and unjust one to be replaced by a more ethical one. However, as we have said: no one in the West probably expects anyone else, as the supposedly peaceful monks are involved in the conflict, to denounce the situation in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.

Another columnist of The Guardian, Emmanuel Stoakes finds that there should not be ways to excuse Daw Suu’s attitude.
He wrote that ‘[when] asked about the plight of Muslims during her recent visit to the UK, Suu Kyi told BBC journalist Mishal Husain that there was "no ethnic cleansing” and equivocated about the suffering of both Buddhists and Muslims in a manner that at least one other writer found “chilling” to watch.’ According to Stoakes, one could thus say that Daw Suu lives in a total denial of a phenomenon that is being witnessed by the entire world in newspapers and on televisions. Stoakes added that '[the] Rohingya are edging closer to a final disaster that could amount, in the eyes of several authoritative analysts, to genocide. Yet “mother Suu” remains virtually silent, no doubt in part because the recognition of this people’s plight would amount to political suicide in a country where racial prejudices run deep. The Rakhines have demonstrated their position on the Rohingya with total clarity: through mob attacks and arson; their hatred of the Rohingya has been evident for decades.' So, would Aung San Suu Kyi be on the side of the Rohingya but fear she would harm fledgling political successes if she dared to address their situation?

In an article entitled “Aung San Suu Kyi is a bust: There was so much hope for her as a moral leader in Myanmar, but power (or politics) has changed her”, Zafar Sobhar goes even further saying that “[i]n the face of scathing criticism from international human rights groups, supporters of the sainted Aung San Suu Kyi are left with only one way to spin her inaction and silence on the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar: as cold political calculation on her part.” Going way further clarifying his point, Sobhar writes that ‘[i]n one of her most celebrated speeches, Suu Kyi famously said: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” She might well have added: Fear of never gaining power corrupts those who would hold their tongues in the face of savagery’. This would only mean that Daw Suu is scared to go back to square one in her political career.


When asked why she does not speak out for the Rohingya, she said: “I am not silent because of political calculation […] I am silent because, whoever’s side I stand on, there will be more blood. If I speak up for human rights, they (the Rohingya) will only suffer. There will be more blood.”  Is this an alibi or the Rohingyas might actually face a ‘real’ genocide if they get Daw Suu’s support? If one would see it as an alibi, she has made a clear conclusion on what to respond whenever she is asked about the Rohingyas: “Myanmar does not have the rule of the Law”.

However, something might have changed recently but it did not come out of the mouth of Daw Suu. Her spokesperson said that ‘Rohingyas are entitled to “human rights”’. In his proper words, Nyan Win said that “If they [the Rohingyas] are not accepted (as citizens), they cannot just be sent onto rivers. Can't be pushed out to sea. They are humans. I just see them as humans who are entitled to human rights”. This would be a great move as renowned people have started asking Daw Suu to be vocal about the Rohingya plight. The Dalai Lama himself pleaded for the Rohingya. The Guardian wrote that the Agence France-Presse reported the words of "[t]he Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader [who] said Suu Kyi must speak up, adding that he had already appealed twice to her in person since 2012, when deadly sectarian violence in Burma’s Rakhine state pitted the Rohingya against local Buddhists, to do more on their behalf.”

At one point in history, another freedom fighter was confronted to a more or less similar situation, Nelson Mandela. After his release, his political party,
the African National Congress, was caught up in bloody battles with members of the IFP in the KwaZulu Natal province and many black leaders wanted to exclude the whites from the governance of the country. Mandela condemned the violence in KwaZulu Natal and welcomed the whites into his government. This was not about protecting a weak defenseless minority, because the whites still had military and economic power, but doing the right thing as it was expected of Mandela. The outcome of his decisions could have led to a disastrous end for his political career. Brian Pellot wrote that ‘Mandela once said that “there are times when a leader must move ahead of his flock.” For Aung San Suu Kyi’s legacy, for Myanmar’s future, for the fate of the Rohingya, this is certainly one of those times. If she fails to do so by the end of next year, after the elections, her disappointing place among her flock will be secured.’ Although this statement might sound as an ultimatum in an obviously complicated situation, its veracity seems undoubtable.

Being an advocate for human rights is a heavy weight. Not only when being challenged by oppressive governments, but also when it is necessary to go against widely accepted views on how to wage wars or regulate security in the world. Recently, Malala Yousafzai said in a statement: “I […] expressed my concerns [to the US President Obama] that drone attacks are fueling terrorism […] Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people.” And that is not because she does not have political aspirations as she also said: “I want to become a prime minister of Pakistan, and I think it's really good. Because through politics I can serve my whole county. I can be the doctor of the whole country”.

The world changes people into living saints. In her wisdom enlightened by many years of experience, the Catholic Church chooses to wait for people to die before calling them saints. Who knows what we still have to see happen in many Nobel peace prizes winners’ lives before their death? Maybe the world is too hasty in “canonizing” living human beings.

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