By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
June 02, 2015
Over the last 15 days, the world watched with horror and disbelief the news reports about Rohingyas from Myanmar drifting in over-crowded vessels in the Andaman Sea, half-starved, disease-stricken and dying.
Official figures of the Rakhine state's population in Myanmar stands less than four million as of 2014 and the number of Rohingya population is about 735,000 as of 2013. According to the UN, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Historians assert that Rohingyas have been living in the Rakhine state (Arakan) since the eighth century. However the Myanmar government maintains that under the 1982 Citizenship Act, as the Rohingyas came to Myanmar after 1823, they are not eligible to become Myanmar citizens.
On May26, a high-profile three-day international conference on the plight of Rohingyas was held at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo.
In his pre-recorded address to the conference, Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu, leader of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, called for an end to the slow genocide of the Rohingyas.
Tutu's appeal was supported by six other fellow Nobel Peace laureates: Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland, Jody Williams from the USA, Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, Shirin Ibadi from Iran, Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel from Argentina. In a statement, they said, "What Rohingyas are facing is a textbook case of genocide in which an entire indigenous community is being systematically wiped out by the Burmese government."
Philanthropist George Soros in a pre-recorded address to the Oslo conference said, "In 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I, too was a Rohingya…The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming."
Nobel Peace Laureate Suu Kyi was not invited to the conference because of her stance on the Rohingya issue. When hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas in the Rakhine state were driven from their homes in 2012, Suu Kyi did not speak up against this gross violation of human rights.
In his video statement, Desmond Tutu reportedly made a remark directed toward Suu Kyi, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” Tutu further says, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” The Dalai Lama also urged Suu Kyi to speak up for Rohingyas.
Most of her admirers abroad were astonished that she abdicated her moral responsibility to denounce such grave abuses against an ethnic minority in her country. John Sifton, Asia Advocacy director for Human Rights, said, “It is her authority as an iconic Nobel Peace Prize that she has failed to wield.”
There could be several reasons for Suu Kyi not speaking up for Rohingyas.
With the withdrawal of the Japanese army from Myanmar after the Second World War, the undisputed leader of Myanmar's independence U Aung San (Suu Kyi's father) convened the Panglong conference in 1947. The conference was held to discuss the constitutional future of Myanmar and Aung San invited only the Buddhist representatives of the Rakhine state. The Muslims (Rohingyas) found themselves excluded from the Panglong conference and thus, their grievances were not presented.
The Agreement following the Panglong Conference set the stage for the Myanmar Constitution of 1947. The legal status of more than half a million Rohingyas in Myanmar has been suspect in the eyes of the Myanmar leadership since then. Many believe that since her father, the founder of Myanmar, mistakenly excluded the Rohingyas, Suu Kyi is hesitant to support their cause.
Moreover, she has political ambitions to eventually head her country and so probably does not wish to alienate the Buddhist voters by supporting the Rohingyas. Under the present constitution of Myanmar, she is not eligible to run for presidency because her two sons are British citizens by birth. There are speculations that she could be made the Speaker of the Parliament which is also a powerful position. This being the case, she does not wish to annoy the government, particularly the powerful military establishment.
It is also reported that Suu Kyi's Chief of Staff is Dr. Tin Mary Aung, a doctor who belongs to an ethnic group that is fighting against the Rohingyas, and this has influenced Suu Kyi's decision to keep a low profile regarding the Rohingyas.
Suu Kyi would be able to restore her image and change the image of her country by speaking up for the rights of Rohingyas. The international world expects her to support Rohingyas' rights to citizenship. This, I believe, is a fair, just and humane demand.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.