National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arriving at the Union Parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on March 15. (Reuters Photo/Soe Zeya Tun)
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s democracy icon, now the effective head of her country’s government, being both state counselor and foreign minister, has taken into her own hands the job of achieving peace and development in the country’s northwestern state of Rakhine.
There’s a lot of power in those hands. There’s also blood on them.
Recently President Htin Kyaw, Myanmar’s nominal head of government, appointed his de facto boss, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as chair of the Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State.
The office of the state counselor said members of the committee would soon go on an inspection trip to Rakhine State but didn’t say exactly when or if Aung San Suu Kyi herself would be going. She did call to the capital city, Nay Pyi Taw, the chief minister of Rakhine and ministers of the national government for a meeting on peace and development.
They also took up a tendentious citizenship verification process for internally displaced persons (IDPs), particularly the 120,000 Rohingya Muslims who live in internment camps in Rakhine State since 2012 after Buddhist militants rampaged through Rohingya villages, setting fire to houses and attacking people with machetes and improvised weapons.
There has been no report on the results of that meeting. An official from the Ministry of Labor, however, leaked to the press that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had cited economic development as the key to peace and stability in that poverty-stricken and chaotic part of the country. Thus she reportedly instructed both union and regional governments to carry out development projects fast and effectively.
At first blush, this sounds like a welcome development. But on deeper thought, it’s not good news. She’s barking up the wrong tree.
The pursuit of economic development projects, even if carried out quickly and effectively, even if it leads to high growth rates, does not necessarily bring about peace and stability. There will still be the question of whether the wealth created is equitably distributed. There will still be the question of whether bitter communal grievances, including those that have nothing to do with economics, are addressed to the satisfaction of all concerned. There will still be the issue of justice. And there will still be the matter of whether a population’s identity gets due respect.
The first requirement of respect is to call people by their right name. The Muslim ethnic group that’s found mostly in Rakhine state, who number about 1.3 million, has always been known as Rohingya. But extremist nationalists, led by a monk named Ashin Wirathu, who styles himself the “Burmese bin Laden,” refuse to call them Rohingya and insist on labeling them “Bengali,” implying that they’re illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and therefore have no citizenship rights. As such they’re entitled only to a life of misery if they’re allowed to live at all. The truth, however, is that they’ve grown roots on Rakhine soil since centuries ago.
Having been deprived of their citizenship by force of the military-imposed 1982 Citizenship Act, they’re denied basic health care and their movements are restricted so that they can’t earn a living and must therefore depend on aid. Those in the camps suffer hunger and lack of basic necessities, and when they get very sick they must pay for a police escort to get to a hospital—if they’re allowed to go there at all. Without a police escort they’d be ambushed. And when Buddhist militants are in the mood to carry out a bit of ethnic cleansing, the Rohingya get no government protection.
In the run-up to the elections last November, Suu Kyi personally made sure that her National League for Democracy (NLD) fielded no Muslim candidates — for fear of a massive loss of Buddhist votes. Now that the NLD has won by a landslide and she’s the effective head of government, she still lives in abject fear of the ire of Buddhist militants. Thus when 21 Rohingya were drowned when their boat capsized on their way from internment camp to market and a hospital, the foreign office, which she now heads, objected to the American embassy’s use of the term Rohingya in a letter of condolence to the Myanmar government. Maybe we should be grateful that her government allowed anybody to send a letter of condolence at all.
She says she’s against the use of the name because it’s “emotive.” She also says she’s also against the use of the term “Bengali” to refer to this unmentionable ethnic group — but when did she ever chastize anybody for using this expression of hatred?
There is now a formal peace process between her government and the various ethnic minority groups in the country: the Shan, the Kachin, the Karen, the Chin, etc. Not included, by virtue of the 1982 Citizenship Act, is the Rohingya. Indeed, why bother with this ethnic group when, unlike all the others, it doesn’t have an army?
So in Myanmar nothing has changed for the Rohingya. It’s still all right to persecute them, to deny them suffrage and freedom of movement, to withhold from them health and other basic social services. And it’s okay, under sufficiently “emotive” circumstances, to torch their houses and cut them down where they stand. The only difference is that these inhumanities are no longer carried out under a military regime but under a government headed by a democracy icon.
For all that, she’s been called a coward. That’s an obvious point, although it did take heroic courage for her to stand up against military fascism for all of two decades. She may indeed have a selective kind of courage. What she needs more of is conscience.
For there’s blood on her hands — Rohingya blood — and the memory of her legendary struggle for democracy won’t wash it away. Nor will it be washed away by the achievements of her current office.
It will cling to her until justice is done to the last Rohingya.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy