When a hero falls

When a hero falls

Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama hug each other after their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon, Burma, on Nov. 14, 2014. (EPA photo)

This is my column that was published in Arab News on Nov. 16, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The scene of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wrapping her arms around US President Barack Obama following their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon on Friday was sickening on several levels.

First, it smacked of desperation. Barred by the generals, who still run Burma from behind the façade of a civilian government, from running in the 2015 general election, Suu Kyi must be worried that the decades of isolation she endured locked up under house arrest may have been in vain. But more importantly, it is her revolting silence in not criticizing the state-sponsored genocide unleashed against the Muslim Rohingya people of her country by the Buddhist majority that has seriously damaged her alleged commitment to democracy and freedom for all the Burmese.

The Rohingya have long suffered severe discrimination in Burma and denial of citizenship by the government. Many may have thought that with the handover of the government to a nominally civilian leadership two years ago that loosened media censorship and released many political prisoners; things would improve for Burmese Muslims. But instead they have gotten much, much worse.

In 2012, horrific anti-Muslim riots broke out in Rakhine state in which whole Muslim villages were burned to the ground by angry Buddhist mobs and Muslim women, children and the elderly were beaten, speared and shot to death. It is estimated that 650 Rohingyas were killed, 1,200 went missing and up to 140,000 displaced. In response to the riots, the central government declared martial law in Rakhine and intervened with military troops, setting up internment camps in which Muslims were forced to move to. Today, more than 100,000 Rohingyas remain stuck in these camps, from which they are forbidden to leave.

Buddhist monks, who were once so celebrated for their role in resisting the dictatorial rule of the military from the 1960s through the 1990s, have played a key role in stirring up sectarian strife in Burma. I watched an excellent documentary a few months ago about this that featured the radical monk named Wirathu, who is the head of an extremist Buddhist group called “969.” It showed him traveling around Burma in a private jet to give lectures to groups of Burmese, warning them of the dangers of Muslims and telling them not to not allow their women to marry Muslim men, as there was an alleged Muslim plot to take over the country. In the film, Suu Kyi is asked about this and she refuses to explicitly condemn such fear mongering, only keeping to her usual mantra that it is the duty of the government to protect all Burmese.

Thankfully, Obama raised the plight of the Rohingyas several times both in private and public in his talks with Burmese President Thein Sein and in his speech at Suu Kyi’s residence. “Discrimination toward the Rohingya or any other religious minority does not express the kind of country, over the long term, that Burma wants to be,” said Obama.
American officials remain baffled by Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out more forcefully against the anti-Rohingya violence, according to the New York Times, which notes that this persecution of Muslims is the biggest blot on Burma’s reputation and if not dealt with could jeopardize western aid to the country.

Perhaps Suu Kyi being a devout Buddhist has much to do with her reluctance to openly criticize the radical monk groups that keep attacking Muslims in Burma. She is known to wake up early every day and spend several hours in Buddhist meditations before starting the rest of her day. Yet for a woman who has sacrificed so much, most notably her not being able to see her British husband when he was dying of cancer because the military regime would not give him a visa to enter Burma to see her and she could not leave Burma as the military said they would not allow her back in, to hardly say anything now when hundreds of thousands of her own countrymen are being killed and run out of their own homes is unforgiveable.