RANGOON — South African peace activist Desmond Tutu called on Burma’s leaders to embrace the idea that “freedom is cheaper than oppression” during his first visit to the country, and pressed them to end violence against Rohingyas and other minorities.
Speaking on Wednesday at Rangoon’s Baldwin Library, run by the US embassy, Tutu laced his talk with coded references to the ongoing racist attacks against Rohingya Muslims and wars in ethnic areas, which he said threatened a “new apartheid.”
“If you want to truly be free then it must be all of you together,” he told the 100-strong audience that included former political prisoners, ethnic leaders and monks who spearhead the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
“Very many people around the world have held you in their hearts, have prayed for you and continue to do so,” he said. “I met former political prisoners yesterday and told them you belong to an aristocracy whose members include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela.”
Tutu, a former bishop who played a key role in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, drew parallels with his country’s experience and showed the advantages that come from embracing democracy.
“You don’t have to contend with sanctions, you don’t have to spend resources keeping people under lock and key, you can participate in international business and sport, you can attract tourists.
“And the most important thing … is that this is a moral universe. Right and wrong matter.”
He praised Burma’s President Thein Sein for the changes he has helped bring about in the country, but also stressed the “ongoing suffering of our Rohingya sisters and brothers.”
“Don’t say there are others that are not even allowed to travel freely,” he said. “Don’t say ‘No, you don’t belong here.’ Because the world will say, ‘Ah – there’s a new apartheid’ and we know what the world did to South Africa’s apartheid.”
Abu Tahay, a Rohingya community leader in the audience, said Tutu’s words offered a guide to help Burma reach its goal of peace and harmony.
“If you see people as human, our goal is quite close. If you base on nationality, our goal will become far away,” he said.