The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, last week appealed to Aung San Suu Kyi to “open your eyes, listen, feel with your heart, and please use your moral authority before it is too late.” Prof. Lee was referring to a newly published report by the UN on the risk to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still remaining in Myanmar, who were described as being at “serious risk of genocide.”
Is the UN really expecting Suu Kyi to change her views and behave differently at this stage? After she not only remained silent but provided cover for the military in 2016 while it was busy driving out more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh in a brutal, genocidal campaign.
Suu Kyi’s long history of racism against the Rohingya has been well documented and was further confirmed in former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s just-released memoirs, in which he recalls meeting her in London in October 2013, when the Rohingya were being driven out of their homes and murdered. When Cameron told her “the world is watching,” her only response was “they are not really Burmese. They are Bangladeshis,” thus repeating the racist accusation that the Rohingya are illegal interlopers from Bangladesh and do not belong in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi has been identified in the new UN report as complicit in the abuses. While her civilian government has no authority over matters of security, and could not order the military to halt further operations or alter the way in which they are conducted, they nevertheless hold power over the political discourse in the country and certain aspects of international relations. But they, including Suu Kyi, have continuously opted to use their power to support the military campaign against the Rohingya, block international efforts to investigate and document events on the ground, including some previous efforts by UN agencies, and support the Buddhist-nationalist narratives used to justify the removal of the Rohingya from the country of their birth.
The international response to the unfolding events in Myanmar has been paralyzed by the fear that exceedingly robust criticism would undermine Suu Kyi’s position in the country, and doing so would hand untrammeled power back to the erstwhile military junta. The West watched patiently as more and more Rohingya refugees poured over the border to Bangladesh, in the hope that Suu Kyi would eventually find a way to assert herself and intervene on behalf of the Rohingya. Some Western leaders who have previously championed human rights and democracy in Myanmar are still in that position now, such as US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“There has been scant evidence of Suu Kyi ever having had much concern for this Muslim minority.” – Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The problem with that patience — in the face of genocide, remember — is the underlying premise that Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was, deep down, on the side of the Rohingya. There has been scant evidence of Suu Kyi ever having had much concern for this Muslim minority in what she regards as a naturally Buddhist state. But, if ever she had such concern for this minority among her people, now is the time to prove it.
Suu Kyi should be given an opportunity to fully redeem herself and her country and live up to the ideals of the Nobel Prize that made her a global human rights icon. There is already a template for exactly what she needs to do to rectify the situation. It is set out in the UN Advisory Commission’s “Final Report,” which was published before the current crisis, under the direction of the late Kofi Annan. The Rohingya need Suu Kyi to fully implement the recommendations of the Annan report, including granting them full citizenship. UN agencies must have full access to the country to oversee any return and resettlement initiatives. And all the military officials named in last week’s report must be removed from office, with the view that they face an international tribunal in due course.
Now that the verdict of genocide has finally been pronounced, neither the international community nor Myanmar’s civilian government can obfuscate or deflect the issue any longer. It is time to ensure that what remains of the Rohingya community is protected, and that those who committed this genocide against them be held accountable. Suu Kyi must now turn the tables on the military and help the international community bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice — or herself be prosecuted as an accomplice and enabler of genocide. However, I, just like the UN, may be being naive.
This article originally appeared in Arab News on September 22, 2019.