“I met murder on the way,” writes Percy Shelley in The Mask of Anarchy, “he had a mask like Castlereagh.” In the 21st century one icon stands taller than other tyrants with the veneer of saintliness; Aung San Suu Kyi, the defacto head of Myanmar. Once a figure of courage in a time of turmoil and murder, her silence is all the more poignant in the light of the attempted destruction of a people in her nation.
The laureate of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights,” is now facing charges for genocide of the Rohingya people; if not for the cooperation and cover-up in human rights atrocities, then for her complacency. She has refused to condemn the attacks against the minority, and even appears unable to mention the name of the people as if tabooed.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Human Rights Council “the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” This “textbook case” has been noted as a work of fiction by the Myanmar government, stating these stories to be fabrications and hyperbole.
Over 600,000 people have fled to Bangladesh since August 25, in spite of the landmines that Myanmar soldiers planted across the border. The casualties are less clear due to the blockade of UN workers and media, but according to Doctors Without Borders 6,700 Rohingya people were killed in August alone, including 730 young children. Dr. Sidney Wong believes the numbers of deaths to be an underestimation as not all the settlements have been accounted for in the survey, adding that “we heard reports of entire families who perished after they were locked inside their homes, while they were set alight.” Accusations of mass rape have been thrown at the Burmese military along with other war crimes, though their own internal investigation concluded with resounding innocence.
Mr. Zeid personally told Suu Kyi to stop the murders some months ago, and was met with hesitance and surprise.“She said ‘this is awful, certainly we want to look at it’,” he said.
Look at it?
Suu Kyi disagrees with the reports coming across from Bangladesh, labelling the Human Rights Commission’s reports as a “huge iceberg of misinformation.” According to her, action against some Rohingya people was a matter of counter-terrorism, as Rohingya militia attacked 30 police posts and an army base. There was a retaliation, the government stated, yet nothing of the kind that is being portrayed by sources. But, if the accusations are as fictitious as she says, then the blame falls on the Myanmar government too – media access is forbidden in these ‘troubled areas’, so evidence to validate or vindicate the rumours of genocide is tremendously difficult to obtain.
Though Suu Kyi does not command the army, acquiescence or denial under her watch as head of state may also be considered a crime “of omission,” according to Mr. Zeid.
“If it came to your knowledge that this was being committed, and you did nothing to stop it then you could be culpable as well for that.”
Suu Kyi said she felt ‘closest’ to the political titans Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru; they who showed solidarity toward Muslims in their nation, and called for the ceasing of violence toward the minority. They confronted rampaging mobs, risking their lives, with Gandhi going on a hunger strike to stop massacres. Thomas Jefferson said, “well done is better than well said.” Her idols acted. Suu Kyi can’t even seem to speak. Last week Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations who has known her for three decades, said “she’s changed, she’s become, unfortunately, a politician afraid of the military and afraid to make the tough decisions to resolve one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.”
If the accusations are true, then Ms. Suu Kyi should change her status of human rights activist to Buddhist activist – unless she doesn’t acknowledge Rohingya Muslims as human. Perhaps if she is arrested, this time it will be for a legitimate reason.
So, what is the international community to do? In a generation of interventions gone wrong, nations and the UN are timid in their pursuits for peace, and premature intrusions like many instances in the past are constant reminders. Go in too early and they’re seen as war mongers; too late and they’re complacent to war crimes. Looking to Rwanda, with its 800,000 dead in 100 days and the failing of the UN to intervene, we see something frighteningly familiar in 2018. From all reports of genocide and the mass migration of nearly half a million Rohingya out of Myanmar, it seems like the keys to tragedy are unlocking a dangerous future. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. It appears that the UN are noticing the similarities.
For the Rohingya people, Shelley’s old words aid dwellers of modern times with hope; “Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep had fallen on you-/Ye are many – they are few.”