Can Suu Kyi Stay Silent?

By Colin Hinshelwood 17 September 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi arrived on Sunday for a tour of the US where she will address Burmese communities in various cities, and is scheduled to collect at least one award for her non-violent struggle during 15 years of house arrest and for her role as a resilient champion of democratic values and human rights.

“Aung San Suu Kyi will be honored for her leadership and steadfast commitment to human rights and for promoting freedom, peace and democracy in her home country of Burma,” said the US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner.

But between receiving Congressional awards on Capitol Hill and dining with the Obamas at the White House, not to mention whatever Hollywood celebrities, former presidents and razzmatazz are rolled out on the red carpet, The Lady will be hard pressed to avoid addressing the burning question—what to do with the Rohingyas?

Until now, Suu Kyi has been largely silent on the issue—she even answered “I don’t know” when asked by a reporter whether the Muslim Rohingya community should be allowed Burmese citizenship. Other statements have been purposefully vague. During her European tour, she responded to reporters’ questions about the Arakan crisis by referring to the matter as a “rule of law” issue—hardly a heartfelt sentiment by a woman renowned across the world as a defender of the oppressed, a voice for the needy.

During this trip, Suu Kyi’s American hosts will want to try to protect her from over-zealous journalists; they don’t want the feel-good factor of this victory lap to be soured with the acrid taste of Burmese nationalism and racism. It’s most likely that her press conferences will be well choreographed, her speeches uplifting and triumphant.

In fact, it would be seen back home in Rangoon as a grave political faux pas for the opposition leader to get bogged down in a debate regarding the reviled Bengali immigrants—as a number of Burmans and Arakanese view the group. No doubt she would receive standing ovations across the US and the West by standing up for the hapless Rohingyas; but in Burma, not so. Her party loyalists assume she is in the process of abandoning her role as a peace-loving activist and assuming the realpolitik mantle of an opposition MP in a slippery Parliament.

“Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this,” said Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, speaking in August. “She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote.”

It won’t help Suu Kyi that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has failed to declare an official stance on the Rohingya crisis; otherwise Suu Kyi could simply toe the party line and decline to elaborate. But the NLD has side-stepped the issue, allowing its leaders to vent their own opinions. Party heads Win Tin, Tin Oo and Nyan Win have each joined the masses in banging the nationalist drum which basically opines that the Rohingyas are not Burmese citizens unless they can jump through myriad hoops to qualify for citizenship; and that the majority should therefore be repatriated to Bangladesh or find resettlement in a third country.

But to hear Suu Kyi uttering such cold phrases would undoubtedly destroy her international reputation. Even her silence is being greeted by disappointment. One Scottish academic, Azeem Ibrahim, questioned whether her Nobel Prize should be rescinded, while the regional director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, has referred to Suu Kyi’s refusal to be drawn into comment as “unfortunate,” and urged her to take a leadership role in resolving the crisis.

It will not have gone unnoticed that Buddhism’s most prolific advocate of non-violent resistance, the Dalai Lama, has raised his concerns about the violence being perpetuated against Muslims in Arakan State in a letter to fellow Noble Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi. To date, as far as we know, The Lady has not allowed herself to be drawn into a debate on the subject.

If truth be told, Suu Kyi is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. She cannot placate the international community which has fawned over her for so long and at the same time appeal to the general Burmese public.

What is more important to her now must surely be her role as a politician, and she will, I’m sure, go with her head instead of her heart. For if she went with her heart, she must surely know that the moral position is to condemn the violence and call for the respect of the Rohingyas’ human rights.