Rohingya situation demands far more from Suu Kyi
Friends such as Desmond Tutu and many in Amnesty are sorely disappointed by her silence
Protesters took to the streets of Pakistan’s major cities to condemn a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, with many carrying placards stating “Shame on Aung San Suu Kyi”. Photograph: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images
The unfolding human rights crisis in the Rakhine State of Myanmar and the reports filtering out of egregious abuse and killings of Rohingya people at the hands of the Myanmar military (including the indiscriminate use of land mines), for whom Aung San Suu Kyi as state counsellor and de facto president must take ultimate responsibility, means that it is no longer possible for Suu Kyi’s friends to remain silent.
Countless supporters like me around the world worked for many decades for her release from house arrest and championed the cause of freedom, justice and human rights for the people of Myanmar (formerly Burma). It was an inclusive campaign waged for the benefit of all who lived in Myanmar regardless of their race, religion or legal status.
In 2009 when it was decided to award her Amnesty International’s most prestigious award – the Ambassador of Conscience Award, inspired by a poem by the late Seamus Heaney – it was in recognition of what she had done and what she suffered in a nonviolent way for the cause of a free and democratic Myanmar in which the human rights of all were respected, defended and vindicated. It was also my very great pleasure to promote and organise the Electric Burma concert for her in Dublin in June 2012 following her release from house arrest in 2010.
However, the title of Ambassador of Conscience is not just an honorary one or a reward for past bravery in the face of oppression. It carries with it an ongoing obligation to work to ensure that the “Republic of Conscience”, described in allegorical terms in Heaney’s poem, is realised. This is the spirit in which it is awarded and the way in which two fellow award recipients (and great admirers of hers) Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela, discharged their ambassadorial roles to the end of their lives.
The reports and footage coming out of Myanmar are deeply shocking and it is heart wrenching to see photographs of Rohingya women, men and children, young and old, fleeing from attacks which they consistently and persistently maintain were at the hands of the Myanmarese military. The video footage and satellite evidence of burning Rohingya villages sadly calls to mind similar video footage and satellite evidence from Darfur, in Sudan, a decade ago.
This very grave situation demands far more from Suu Kyi than she has shown so far even if the military still controls key levers of power, and it has shown scant interest in ending its legacy of systematic human rights violations. I do not believe she condones or supports the violence and she must be deeply disturbed and shocked by the violence and the suffering caused to the Rohingya people in particular. But the situation demands for her to speak out clearly to say that human rights violations against any people living in Myanmar, regardless of their legal status, must stop. And it demands action, investigation and eventual accountability. It certainly must not be met with denial or a blanket claim that it is not happening. There are undoubtedly those in the Myanmar military who will be pleased that the focus for the understandable outrage is more on her than on them. But as she did so fearlessly in the past, she needs to stand up to her own military and leave no doubt as to where she stands when it comes to the protection of human rights.
The situation also demands allowing the UN and other independent international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – who worked so long and so hard for her release – immediate access to the areas affected. Both to provide urgent material aid and to investigate what has happened and is happening.
Martin Luther King, with whom Suu Kyi has been compared to in the past, said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. He spoke out courageously and fearlessly against the actions of the American government waging a war in Vietnam when it was neither profitable nor popular to do so and without fear that this would alienate support for his civil rights cause.
Other friends of hers such as Desmond Tutu and many in Amnesty and elsewhere who supported the struggle to restore democracy, and who placed and still place great hope in her leadership, are sorely disappointed. But disappointment is not a policy. Disappointment will not redress injustice or stop egregious human rights abuses which may amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. As the effective president, she can and must do more to stop it and be seen to do so.
The poem From the Republic of Conscience by Heaney that inspired the Ambassador of Conscience Award finishes with the line: “And no ambassador would ever be relieved.” No Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience is ever relieved of their responsibility to uphold, support and defend human rights.
Bill Shipsey is a barrister and founder of Art for Amnesty