Myanmar: Suu Kyi must speak up

Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader has been disgracefully silent on the plight of the Rohingya

More than a million people are facing a humanitarian catastrophe in Myanmar, yet their government, led by the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, not only fans the flames of the crisis but virtually denies its existence. An estimated 164,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border to Bangladesh since August 25th, when the army of largely Buddhist Myanmar began a violent rampage through Rakhine state, where the minority group is concentrated. Soldiers razed villages, raped women and killed on a horrifying scale. United Nations secretary-general António Guterres has warned of the risk of ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar’s Rohingya have long suffered persecution at the hands of a state that stripped them of their citizenship in 1982 and forces them to live in appalling, apartheid-like conditions. The pretext for the latest crackdown was an attack by Rohingya militants on police posts and a military base – the latest incident in a low-level insurgency that began in 2012. But the authorities’ indiscriminate military response has put civilians at huge risk.

Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, has been disgracefully silent on the plight of the Rohingya. Her defenders argue that her failure to comment publicly for two weeks reflected her need to walk a fine line with the military, which not so long ago was her jailer, and to keep her Buddhist nationalist backers on board. That’s not good enough. Suu Kyi has done nothing in power to lift restrictions on humanitarian access, nor to give the media independent access to areas affected by the insurgency. When she finally broke her silence this week, she simply blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” on the situation in Rakhine. She made no mention of the 164,000 Muslims who have fled their homes.

Our aim, Suu Kyi said in her Nobel acceptance speech, should be to create “a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace”. More than anyone, she should grasp that she has a moral duty to speak up in the face of the unfolding horrors.