Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi betrays Myanmar’s Muslims

5 Nov 2013

Myanmar’s democracy and human rights icon has finally broken her silence on the country’s rising anti-Muslim violence, only to side with Myanmar’s ultra-nationalists.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s video interview with the BBC on Oct 24, has shocked many international observers and has devastated the Myanmar Muslim community. Her comments, which echo the narrative of the Buddhist extremists responsible for the recent violence, have not only terrified the whole community,

they also raise a worrying question. If a Noble Laureate from Myanmar has such radical views on Myanmar Muslims, what can be expected from the generals who have no concept of the principles of multiculturalism?

In the interview, Mrs Suu Kyi attempted to explain the wave of anti-Muslim violence by blaming Myanmar’s Muslim minority as a genuine threat that is causing “fear” among the Buddhist majority. To support her idea, she used the term “global Muslim power” to justify anti-Muslim violence and obscure the increasing threat of notorious 969 Buddhist extremism in Myanmar. This labelling of the deeply rooted Islamophobia in Myanmar as a fear of “global Muslim power” not only reproduces the narrative of Buddhist extremists, but it also distorts the country’s social reality and political history.

Muslims make up only 4% of Myanmar’s population of approximately 60 million, practise a very moderate form of Islam, and are preoccupied with their livelihoods _ not on spreading their religion. In fact, religion has never been a dividing issue for Myanmar Muslims, who are part of Myanmar’s nationalist history and feel themselves to be an integral part of Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Buddhist community’s fear of Islam that Mrs Suu Kyi described uncritically in her interview is an artificial fear that is an outcome of a man-made ethno-nationalist mindset, implemented systematically by General Ne Win and recently inflamed by 969 Buddhist extremists.

The Nobel Laureate could have used the interview as an opportunity to publicly condemn the violence and critique this ethno-nationalist mindset, rather than reinforcing it and even giving it legitimacy. As the chairperson of Myanmar’s Parliamentary Committee for the Rule of Law, Peace and Tranquillity, Mrs Suu Kyi should have discussed the dangers of the ongoing lack of rule of law and the need to urgently reform the country’s biased judicial system, which does not treat minorities, including Muslim citizens, as equal.

Mrs Suu Kyi’s comments on displacement were also inaccurate and disappointing. When questioned about the 140,000 displaced people in Rakhine state and the many Rohingya Muslims who continue to risk their lives fleeing the country by boat, her response was that many Buddhists have also left the country.

While there are many Rakhine Buddhists who have been affected and displaced by last year’s deadly outbreak of violence, the scale of displacement is not comparable to that suffered by the Rohingya community. Buddhist Myanmar citizens who have left the country over the course of the past several decades have not done so as a result of religious persecution and certainly not because of some imagined “Muslim threat”.

The Lady’s denial of ethnic cleansing, perhaps, optimistically, seemed like an attempt to save the country’s image. While debates remain on whether or not we are already witnessing an all-out ethnic cleansing campaign, violence targeting Muslims is an indisputable reality. Refusing to engage in a critique of this violence will not make it go away. Failure to take such concerns seriously is done so at the expense of innocent lives.

Mrs Suu Kyi, should not forget Saya Maung Thaw Ka _ an author, a close associate of hers and a CEC member of the NLD who persuaded her to appear to the public in the 8888 uprising _ was a Myanmar Muslim. He was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to 20 years in jail with hard labour. He was severely tortured in the jail and died in 1991. According to a witness who saw his dead body, “from head to toe, the body was filled with wounds, which proved the authorities has tortured him severely”.

It is very sad that today solidarity with Muslims in Myanmar is considered political suicide, and that the community is used merely as a political scapegoat for those seeking votes. The Muslims in Myanmar must be recognised by the country’s leaders and citizens as an integral part of the country’s history, present and future. This is the most critical step towards preventing more violence and slowly building our dream of a peaceful and plural society in Myanmar.

Kyaw Win is a Burmese Muslim refugee and human rights activist living and studying in the United Kingdom.

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